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L’animation et ses modes de collaboration

Below-the-line creativity and authorship in animation: the reality of animation production

Sabine Heller


Les questions de créativité et d’auctorialité sont au cœur de nombreux débats dans de nombreuses disciplines. Dans la lignée de la théorie des auteurs, les travaux à ce sujet considèrent essentiellement l’auteur comme un individu et se concentrent sur les professions les plus visibles (ou « above-the-line »), tels les réalisateurs et les producteurs. Cependant, la nature collaborative de l’animation, plus particulièrement dans le cas des films d’animation en 3D, offre un regard sur les contributions de nombreux professionnels considérés comme appartenant à l’équipe technique (« below-the-line ») et non créative. Grâce à une approche qualitative fondée sur l’analyse d’entretiens, cet article s’attache à examiner les contributions créatives des membres de l’équipe technique au sein de la communauté des professionnels de l’animation. Ce travail se fonde sur des entretiens avec des praticiens de l’industrie de l’animation américaine, en interrogeant la manière dont ils théorisent leurs propres pratiques. Il s’agit, à l’aune du cadre théorique fourni par les production studies, d’explorer comment les notions d’auctorialité, de contrôle créatif et d’agentivité se placent dans ce cadre. L’hypothèse ici consiste à mettre en valeur l’écart entre les attentes des professionnels concernant la créativité et l’auctorialité et les pratiques des studios d’animation 3D, qui requièrent une nouvelle approche de la paternité artistique.

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  • 1 Computer-generated animation.

1There are several reasons why the study of authorship and agency below the line is especially relevant for 3D animation. Technological advances in the medium have had a large impact on the animation production process, making it more complicated and requiring ‘even greater interactive collaboration among […] departments and individual studio employees’ (Holian 2013). Today, specialised knowledge from many unique experts is required to create a specific look, a desired behaviour or tool. Additionally, the switch to new digital production technologies caused three main changes in the production process: ‘blurred and collapsed workflows’, the increased ‘pace of filming and work speed’ and increased ‘production multi-tasking’ (Caldwell 2013, pp. 359–360). While Caldwell is referring to live-action film, the point is also relevant to CG animation1. For example, the fast-paced production process in today’s 3D animation studios, requires workers to stand in and perform other job roles, including roles that require creative problem-solving, which imparts more authorial agency to the below-the-line practitioner. Below-the-line (BTL) typically describes employees categorised as technical personnel in the social division of labour. Below-the-line employees cannot claim individual credits and intellectual property rights. Within the animation industry, animators are regarded as below-the-line workers. Above-the-line (ATL) typically refers to employees categorised as creative personnel, for example directors, producers and writers, who can claim creative agency and are acknowledged as authors within and outside the industry. Stahl (2005) claims that animation studios rely specifically on the creative input and authorship of animators. While BTL personnel are not usually associated with creative input, studios count on workers to stand in and perform these roles for schedule and budgetary reasons. Additionally, most theories of authorship focus on the author as an individual – a tradition established by the auteur theory. Theories of authorship of multiple collaborators in the film-production process, especially those that focus on the animation industry, are less explored by film studies scholars. Nevertheless, the collaborative nature of animation feature film requires a closer look at the contributions of the large number of below-the-line employees. They might or might not be key contributors; however, they certainly should not be ignored.

2This article attempts to ‘crack open’ the black box of animation film production and reveal the production process and practices of below-the-line practitioners. To do so, this article draws on theories from the field of production studies and current theories of creativity and authorship. It utilises a qualitative research approach that involved analysing interviews of 25 female and male participants who were currently, or had been employed, at one of the major 3D feature animation studio in the United States (Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney, Blue Sky Studios, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Laika). The interviews were primarily conducted in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, in safe locations that allowed the participant to stay anonymous and to speak freely. The sample consisted of practitioners of two different categories of work, animators and character technical directors (CTDs) to explore whether and how experiences differ depending on the role of the practitioners. Character technical directors, also called riggers, are specialised in the asset production aspect of the pipeline and provide animators with the necessary tools and setup to efficiently animate the 3D characters. Animators are primarily responsible for the performance of the characters in shot production. The inclusion of two below-the-line professions helps to shift the focus from the animator, who is often regarded as more creative, to CTDs, who are considered more technical in the animation industry. By analysing the interviewees’ responses to questions about collaboration, work routine, contributions and decision-making processes, as well as the desire and opportunities to add their own ideas, the article will discuss what animators and CTDs themselves consider to be a creative activity and how they define authorship. I will show that their conception of authorship in all these aspects is highly influenced by definitions of creativity and authorship which focus on the individual. I will then argue that these traditional views and expectations about authorship and creativity conflict with the actual practice of how these concepts function in the 3D animation studio environment.

Creative self-identity below the line

3Most people value the opportunity to contribute their personal ideas. Practitioners in this study mention their enjoyment of the creative activity involved in making a high-quality product itself as a motive to contribute creatively. Work is a means to self-actualisation and realising one’s own personal talent or potential. The creative process, the craft or skill involved in the work can be satisfying on its own as Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2011) found. To discover and improve one’s own creativity and talent has become one of the ‘most desired human qualities’ (McRobbie 2002, p. 109). Several interviewees explain their desire to contribute creatively by contrasting it with the example of an ‘assembly line’ production, being ‘just a tool’, or ‘just a cog in the machine’. Those comparisons are all examples of ‘mindless’ work that do not require any personal contribution. Animators and CTDs value the amount of influence they have and the freedom they possess, allowing them more agency in their work and making it a satisfying and gratifying experience.

4However, below-the-line practitioners in the animation industry often have difficulty considering their own contributions as creative, and thus claiming authorship. While animators and CTDs make frequent references to art and artists when discussing creative contributions, their opinions about self-identifying as artists vary drastically. The reason for this is the strong link the interviewees make between the term artist and being creative and the preconception of creativity as a profoundly individual, unique, and fine arts contribution. The practitioners’ feeling of being able to claim authorship is heavily influenced by whether animators and CTDs believe their contributions to be highly creative, which is in turn determined by their definition of creativity. Thus, to understand the way animators and CTDs think about authorship, one must first understand how they define creativity and if they identify themselves as creative individuals. Through analysis of the interviews, I identified five aspects of a contribution: creativity, visibility, individuality, ownership and scope, which are highly related to such a concept of creativity and which define animators’ and CTDs’ feelings of authorship. The connection between the understanding of creativity and authorship becomes clear in the following definition of creativity from CTD Shane:

I think creativity is like when you’re given all the keys to the car and you’re able to take whatever it is. Wherever you want. You can drive that wherever you want. You don’t have a specific destination. You make your own.

5When he is later asked ‘it sounds like you were saying in your definition of creativity that it’s basically having full control and full freedom?’, he agrees with this assessment of his statement. Thus, he is connecting creativity with absolute control and complete freedom to follow your own vision. In his description of creativity, Shane instinctively uses elements that are at the heart of the theories of authorship, confirming how related the questions of authorship and creativity are. Shane further confirms this in his idea of authorship which he describes as a ‘fuzzy thing […] unless it’s 100% pure, like a pure idea from an individual’. The idea of the pure, authentic idea from an individual as author seems to be at the core of his definition of authorship. Existing definitions of creativity are often associated with individuals. The reason lies in the deeply rooted romantic notion of the ‘lone genius’, an image frequently connected to ‘exceptional creativity’ which can be traced back to pre-Christian societies (Simonton 2004). The idea of the author as an individual artist also serves an economic purpose. Individualism influences the distribution of creative credit through intellectual and creative property laws. Attributing film to the artistic expression of an individual, usually the director, helps to elevate and establish film as an art form and provides a useful marketing tool to promote film. The following paragraphs will reveal similar preconceptions about the term artist, which is used as the embodiment of a creative individual.

6Art metaphors comparing the creative process in animation to that of an artist or painter are frequently employed, especially by animators. Some practitioners use the word artist without any hesitation, for example animator Dustin who naturally assumes artist status when he generalises that ‘artists need to be inspired’, referring to practitioners in the 3D animation industry. Animator Stan uses the term artist similarly and justifies his claim by explaining that ‘we are not painting paint by numbers; we like to paint actual pictures’. His example seems to make a distinction between the traditional fine artist, who paints a new, authentic picture and the craftsman who just executes the vision of others. Interestingly, CTD Shane argues the opposite by stating that most 3D animation is ‘colouring within the lines’, since most films have the same look, inferring that their work is generally not original and, thus, does not deserve artistic status. Creative work is conventionally connected to originality and uniqueness. Crafts, on the contrary, are generally thought to be a more anonymous and collective practice (Sennett 2009). However, such a categorisation is problematic, since this separation is closely connected to status (creative work is considered more prestigious than technical work) and, as previously outlined, tied to how work is being compensated. Some interviewees are particularly aware of the problematic preconception of the term artist and creativity and choose to distance themselves from the association with the term artist for those reasons. Animator Doug, for example, explains in detail:

The word artist is just so loaded. It just comes with such a lot of baggage. I find it difficult to apply that kind of associations to myself in what I do especially as an animator. It’s fine if other people are like, ‘Oh, you’re an animation artist,’ or whatever like, ‘Yeah.’ Okay. Fair enough but I don’t think I was ever comfortable with calling myself an artist, but I’m still and I’m painting and drawing, so what is that?

7While he accepts that others might grant him artist status, he clearly is not comfortable with identifying himself as an artist. His reasoning directly refers to the predisposition of the term artist itself. While others might not spell it out as clearly as Doug, they indicate a similar difficulty with the conception of the term artist. The long-standing, traditional understanding of creativity and artist status have a large impact on the self-identification of 3D animation practitioners as artists. The non-commercial, individual, authentic fine artist seems to be the primary image that comes to mind when thinking about the term artist and creativity, making it difficult for practitioners to claim authorship in an animation studio environment involving hundreds of contributors.

Role dependent experiences of creativity

8While multiple animators hesitate to identify themselves as artists, compared to CTDs they nevertheless appear to have less difficulties to consider their contributions as creative and worthy of authorship. The interviews reveal two main reasons. First, while the practitioners generally have difficulties identifying with the term ‘artist’, animators do not have any problem identifying with the term ‘actor’, which is considered a highly creative above-the-line (ATL) role. Second, the contributions of CTDs often involve technical problem-solving, which is not immediately associated with creativity. In the interviews of this study, animators frequently compare themselves and their work to actors. While it might be puzzling for researchers, this correlation is generally and widely accepted in the animation industry. This becomes especially apparent when animators describe their contributions, as we can see in animator Stan’s description of his main responsibilities:

Together with the voice actors we are sort of the actors of the film. All the character animation or all the character movement that you see, that would fall under my responsibility.

9Finding the personality and the behaviour of a character, as well as acting out a shot are tasks that could also describe the responsibilities of live-action actors. Often, animators even do the so-called ‘scratch track’, a sound recording of primarily dialogue and noises used as a temporary placeholder. Famous animators like Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Chuck Jones have established this comparison between animators and actors Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Disney’s famous Nine Old Men, make this connection even earlier. While those animators primarily speak about 2D animation, the idea of the animator as actor is more prevalent than ever before. Books like Ed Hooks’ Acting for Animators (Hooks 2017), which is currently in its 4th edition, and acting classes at animation schools like Animation Mentor and even at the studios themselves, for example, support this claim that animators and actors are similar roles and even profit from this correlation.

10Academic researchers are not entirely opposed to this idea. Paul Wells, for example, sees the similarities between animator and actor in their motivation to ‘extend the possibilities of the character beyond the information given or suggested in the initial text’ (1998: 104). By projecting his ‘inner life’ and creating characters by animating the line, the animator becomes the actor. Donald Crafton observes that ‘animated characters … are actors who may convey strong emotions’ (2013: 16): the animator who creates those performances is therefore the ‘real’ performer. After reviewing the industry’s perception and the current academic theories in this regard, I would argue that while the work of an animator is not the same as the work of an actor, there is a connection between their contributions that cannot be denied. The scope of the creative contribution of an actor on the entire movie might be larger than that of an animator, however I contend that the contributions of 3D animators from a creative standpoint can to some degree be compared to that of actors. Since live-action actors are above the line and regarded as creative personnel, this might also explain why animators seem to be more likely to consider their contributions as creative than CTDs whose contributions are less related to the actual performance of the character in a shot. Even though actors are generally regarded as artists, most animators feel less comfortable to compare themselves to artists than actors as previously discussed. However, this is presumably because the term ‘actor’, unlike the term ‘artist’ relates directly to the performance of a character and to the animator’s main responsibility.

11The second reason why CTDs have more difficulties with calling themselves artists and considering their own contribution as a creative activity seems to be related to the nature of their work, which often involves less visual, and more technical problem-solving. While process-led problem-solving, which is a problem-solving activity that is a direct result from the production process, can sometimes include visual elements, problem-solving by CTDs, especially when it comes to tools, can be quite technical. Therefore, it is not immediately associated with creativity, since creative and technical are often utilised as opposites. After all, even the social division of labour employs these terms to separate workers into ‘creative’ above-the-line and ‘technical’ below-the-line employees. However, CTD Shane’s explanation of what problem-solving is, which he describes to be at the core his work as a CTD, indicates a process that is inherently creative. He specifies:

I think to be a character TD or rigging person, you kind of have to be wired to solve problems and invent things. Invent ways of doing things that are different.

12Shane’s characterisation of the problem-solving process involves some of the key elements of creative work according to current creativity theories. Problem-solving is a process or an idea which seems to be new, indicated by the term ‘invention’, and has a value, particularly if the problem is solved. Howard Gardner even includes the process of problem-solving itself in the definition of creativity by describing a creative individual as ‘a person who regularly solves problems’ (2011: 33). However, despite similar descriptions from other practitioners, most CTDs do not immediately regard problem-solving as a creative task and often used the term ‘technical’ problem-solving. Interestingly, after asking the practitioners directly if they do not consider problem-solving as a creative activity, several practitioners agreed that it was creative, but a different kind of creativity. CTD Ben states that it is more like ‘creative technical problem-solving’, Shane feels like it is creative, but not ‘artistic’. Markus asserts that problem-solving is creative, but not really an element of the creative part of a movie. A possible explanation for this differentiation and reluctance to regard problem-solving as a creative activity, might be rooted in the predisposed conception of the term creativity connected to fine arts. The idea that inventing a new tool could be considered as creative as drawing a picture, might be difficult to reconcile. It seems that the CTDs previously mentioned found a compromise in suggesting multiple categories of creativity which allowed them to differentiate the more artistic from the more technical, while still calling them both creative tasks. Thus, the definition of creativity by Gardner should be extended to specifically include artistic and technical problem-solving creativity. In such a definition, artistic problem-solving would represent the more traditional understanding of creativity of problem-solving connected to music, writing, and performance, as well as the visual fine arts, for example painting, design, and photography. Technical problem-solving creativity would include a new process or idea that solves a technical issue, or creates an innovative technical product, for example a software tool.

13The traditional connection of creativity with fine arts, presuming a visual contribution, directly influences the practitioners’ idea of authorship. CTDs and animators who make contributions which cannot be directly identified visually, have less of a sense of authorship than those who can. CTDs, especially, tend to miss ways to visually pinpoint what exactly they contributed. CTD Drew explains this as follows:

You cannot visually say, ‘Okay. That’s me. I did that.’ Like you could with the modelling or could with animation.

14The difficulty of exactly defining what their contribution is seems to make some CTDs feel less authorship over their work. When the contributions are workflows or tools, for example, it appears to be more difficult to claim authorship. Such contributions are harder to understand by the public, as well as the studio, and are sometimes not intended to stand out. Often, they can be improvements to make processes faster or better and might not be noticed directly by the other practitioners in the studio, and especially not by the audience. Hence, while such contributions might have a larger impact on the production workflow, they are often invisible to the eye, which has an effect on how some people feel about their contributions.

Individuality, ownership and scope

15The individuality and ownership of a contribution are both closely connected to the concept of creativity as a highly individual and unique process, and the idea of the author as an individual. These aspects of a contribution strongly influence the interviewee’s definition of authorship and their theories about authorial control in the animation studio. To approach such a definition of authorship, several interviewees use the example of the ‘writer’ or the act of ‘writing’ to talk about authorship. Animator Barbara, for example, talks about one of her contributions employing the latter term:

It wasn’t anything that anyone told me to do so that I do feel, yes, I created that. I wrote that. I authored that. I do feel like I have authorship of that.

16Regarding a writer as an author is a logical association and assigns a tangible image to the abstract term of authorship. A writer is most of the time envisioned as an individual working alone, being the primary creative force behind a book. Since the traditional concept of creativity and authorship is interwoven with a single person, the feeling of authorship increases the more a contribution can be attributed to one unique individual. However, in contrast to literary works, the production of a film is not as clear cut, since it requires decisions made by many people. While a writer comes up with an idea and executes it, doing both of those tasks is often not possible in a large-scale film production. CTD Claudia reflects on this idea:

I wouldn’t say I authored it because he actually wrote it, but I guess I did in a way… Even though you may not write the code, but you came up with the process and the method and the idea, how to do it.

17While Claudia is hesitant to say that she has full authorship over her contribution, since she did not both come up with the idea and implement it, she still feels like she has at least partial authorship. Her account begins to reflect on the conflict between the traditional views and explanations of creativity and authorship and the collaborative environment at an animation studio which rarely produces ideas that truly originate from one individual. CTD Shane specifies that he does not believe that a pure authorship stemming from one individual can exist in the 3D animation studio. Everything at the studio is influenced by and building on something that was developed or inspired by someone else. Thus, he believes that: ‘The author really is the company’. Animator Lukas agrees with this idea of a studio authorship. He states that the movies they make are ‘not even the director’s movie, rather he sees the authorship with the studio itself. This concept is separate from collaborative authorship, which allows for multiple individuals to claim authorship. Instead, it is more in line with Jerome Christensen’s (2008) theory of studio authorship in which he transfers the author status to the corporate studio. The studio itself becomes an individual with a personality and style. Employees working in such an organisation unconsciously adopt the personality of the studio while suspending their own (Arnold 1937). Animator Yvonne, for example, did not feel authorship over her work at Walt Disney Animation Studios and experienced it more that she was ‘helping out to create a Disney film’. While the concept of studio authorship elevates the studio to be the author instead of an individual person, it still has its roots in individuality as it assigns a personality to a studio, making it a unique individual. However, as I will explore later, almost everyone, including Shane and Lukas, allow in their interviews for individual contributions of the film production team and a more collaborative approach. Thus, the studio authorship theory, does not seem to fully explain authorship below the line.

18Other interviewees connect authorship with the financial means to make a movie: whoever is highest in the hierarchy, whoever gives the most money and whoever owns the film can claim authorship. However, ownership is problematic as a determinant for below-the-line authorship, since BTL practitioners do not own their contribution in terms of property rights as they are all working for the studio. Nevertheless, most interviewees of this study made a connection between authorship and ownership, stating that authorship implies a sense of ownership. Some interviewees even used both terms interchangeably. To illustrate the relation, CTD Adam employs the example from above of the writer as author who is also the sole owner of that creative product. Regarding the animation industry, however, it was generally agreed upon that the company owns the product financially in exchange for the practitioner’s salary. The employee provides a product or service and gets compensated for it. Giving up their financial ownership and rights to claim creative agency and intellectual property seems to be accepted and deemed as a fair trade of the business arrangement. Some practitioners even stated that if one should want full creative freedom and ownership, they should not work at a big animation studio.

19Despite the agreement on the monetary ownership of the final product, many practitioners reported that they felt a shared ownership or authorship over certain parts, for example a certain shot, or a part of a certain character’s process. Animators often report to feel authorship over the performance in their shot. Ellen explains:

  • 2 Compositing consists in combining a variety of visual elements (backgrounds, characters, special ef (...)

Obviously, there are a lot of other people bringing that character to life before working on fur and cloth, we’re working on lighting, we’re working on the environments and the compositing2. All those things, it’s definitely a team effort, but I can personally take authorship of the performance that’s on the screen, of the reaction that people that are watching it. Because without the performance, without the acting, it’s a doll in a scene.

20While many other employees are involved in the process of creating a character, Ellen does feel authorship over the way the character moves, the timing, the spacing, and possibly the acting ideas that went into the shot. CTDs naturally claim more authorship over the functionality of a character, how it moves on screen. CTD Mark provides some insight into this idea:

It’s one of the coolest things even just to give them a character and then you just see it moving even with the simple walk cycle. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome. I made that.’ Even though I didn’t move it at all. I just made the parts or made the equipment that allowed to make it move. I think seeing my stuff moving is just awesome. Nothing’s more rewarding than that, I think.

21Even though Mark is fully aware that he actually did not make the character move, he feels authorship over the way it moves, because he contributed to the parts that made that movement possible and helped to make it look good in the character’s performance. Providing someone else with his work and seeing it being used adds an additional measure of pride over his creation.

22The feeling of authorship can increase with the impact or the scope of the contribution. Animator Doug reports that while he might feel authorship over a shot he spent several months on, it might not feel as satisfying as when he was a lead on a character in pre-production and he had an ‘influence over the way the character ultimately ended up on screen’. A shot might just be four seconds long and as Doug put it, if ‘everybody blinks at the wrong time and they missed it’. However, as a character lead an animator’s work might end up in all shots if the animator had a chance to develop the personality and behaviour of the character that the entire animation team must adhere to. Animator Lukas agrees and states that he might feel a different kind of authorship for a character he was a lead for:

Obviously, I have not animated all the shots with [the characters I was lead for] but being a character lead gives you a different kind of authorship on some parts of the movie and in this case on the character of the movie. People will come to me and say, ‘Hey, [this character] looks awesome, he was really funny in the movie.’ I do take pride in that, in that wow, I did manage to give people good feedback or to do a good preparation of the character during pre-production…

23While he did not execute all the shots himself, a lot of the ideas that define the animation of the character came from Lukas’ leadership. His contribution seems to be accepted by his colleagues as well, who credit him for the work he did. Multiple animators feel that they can make a larger creative contribution as a lead tracking the character throughout the movie to make sure it is being used properly. This seems to be connected to the scope of influence or responsibility. When working on a shot the responsibility and influence ends with the shot. In comparison, CTDs, whose primary work is in pre-production on a specific character, have a wider influence on tools for the studio pipeline and characters, and thus, usually have a larger scope of influence, since their work is in every shot the character is being animated in. However, multiple CTDs state that they have less of an opportunity to exercise their creativity compared to animators, who are doing the acting for the performances in shot production, which is considered inherently creative. Therefore, it appears that the scope of a contribution has a lesser influence on the practitioner’s feeling of authorship than the perceived level of creativity. CTD Melanie also points out that, even though the scope of influence might be larger, there are many other co-workers in line who want to take credit for a character, for example the production designer, the animators, as well as all the other departments that worked on a certain character asset. She feels that ‘for character TDs it’s hard to get to be that person’, implying that many other people are ahead of her to claim authorship.

Mismatch between expectation and practice

24When asking the interviewees directly about their sense of authorship, it is difficult to receive a straight answer, revealing a hesitance in taking authorship over their contributions. As discussed in the previous section, the reason for the difficulty practitioners have with the term authorship is the traditional expectation of authorship as a highly individual and artistic contribution. However, despite their preconception of what the definition of authorship should entail, they often feel strongly involved and responsible for a specific idea and contribution, making them question the applicability of their own traditional understanding of authorship. The following paragraphs will present three main characteristics of the 3D animation production process practitioners describe that make their own expectations of authorship incompatible with the day-to-day practice they experience in the animation studio. First, the scope of a project resulting in a 3D animated feature film makes it impossible to attribute the authorship to one individual. Second, the organisation of the animation studio production process is inherently collaborative, including creative and technical problem-solving. Third, animators and CTDs report the emergence of something greater than what initiated from a couple of individuals. Thus, the interviewees experience that the final product is greater than the sum of its parts, which cannot be explained with traditional concepts of authorship focusing on an individual.

25Several interviewees report that they can contribute something unique and individual to the process. They describe that some of their contributions can be extremely personal in nature and become more recognisable. Animator Andrew for example illustrates that one of his friends immediately recognised his acting choice and was able to attribute this idea to him by just looking at a sequence of shots. Andrew also reports that employees often gain a certain reputation and are casted to shots depending on their specific sensibilities. For example, someone might be more talented for funny, cartoony performances, others might have a better grasp of extremely emotional shots. Animator Barbara connects her specific personality traits with the ideas she contributes:

I tend to be playful and childlike. I have that energy about me, so I would bring things to […] that character that were more in that realm, and I think people really responded to that… I would come up with things that maybe the director wasn’t even thinking because of his experiences and his background, and the way he was thinking about these characters and I think that just makes it all better.

26Barbara’s contribution is extremely personal and allows her to bring something unique and special to the performance of the character. She states that she even surprised the director, who was not thinking about the character the way she did. This confirms the idea that below-the-line practitioners indeed make personal contributions that can be attributed to a specific individual. However, most interviewees agree that the scope of a 3D animated feature film project and the intense collaboration that is required because of it, often makes it difficult to attribute ideas to a specific individual. Animator Dustin explains:

People always talk about, when they’re brainstorming, whose idea it was but a brainstorm, really, is just the culmination of that group activity that the idea happened. It might have been your idea, but your idea was sparked by someone else’s idea. Really, who has authorship there? Was it the guy who said the first thing or the guy who said the second thing?

27Like Dustin, multiple animators and CTDs explain that a lot of their ideas are a result of the input of several colleagues and that without the help of their peers they could not have built a tool or come up with a certain acting idea, for example. The collaboration they illustrate is generally embraced and regarded as an extremely positive and valuable experience, benefitting the animation production. However, it is also described as a necessity to be able to successfully complete such an enormous project. Additionally, the collaborative process required to develop a feature-length 3D animation makes it often impossible to assign authorship to one individual, explaining why many interviewees struggle with traditional preconceptions about the term which presume that the author is an individual. Nevertheless, while practitioners state that their ideas might not be purely theirs, animators and CTDs welcome the brainstorming and the mixing of ideas that could come from anyone and naturally happen in this collaborative process.

28Another dilemma with the traditional idea of authorship arises from interviewees’ experience of the emergence of something greater than what was initiated by a couple of individuals. Animators Barbara and Ellen explain:

Barbara: it becomes something very different from maybe what you originally [were] going for. It’s always better, at least in my experience it’s always been a good thing.
Ellen: Nothing was ever made by one person. You’re bringing a lot of different people with their own experiences and their own strengths and their own gifts to a project. You allow creative people to bring that much of themselves to it. You’ll see something greater.

29There are many quotes along the same lines as Barbara’s and Ellen’s. The practitioners all describe that the outcome is always something better and greater than they would have been able to come up with in isolation. Everyone offers their own ideas, based on their individual experience and personality. Those ideas are then combined or expanded upon to form something new. This is very much in line with the theories of group creativity. The collaboration of such a large number of individuals on an animated film, each in their own way, ‘can’t be explained with individualist approaches’ (Sawyer 2006: 197). Some interviewees even mentioned that it is rare and nearly impossible to come up with better solutions solely on your own. The reason for this is that collaborative teamwork is required in the animation studio to successfully realise an animation feature film. Thus, working in a team is also where collaboration and authorship emerge. Through collaboration the product results in something greater than just the sum of its parts, which cannot be explained with traditional authorship approaches focusing on the author as an individual. The scope and organisation of the project involving hundreds of individuals requires a collaborative approach to authorship.


30The article revealed that the practitioners’ understanding of creativity influences their ideas about authorship and authorial control in the animation studio. It also uncovered a mismatch between the interviewees’ expectations of what creativity and authorship is and the practice in feature animation. While traditional concepts of creativity and authorship as highly individual, original, visual and artistic contributions still dominate the practitioners’ expectations, the collaboration necessary to create a project of the enormous scope of a 3D animated film involving hundreds of people, is incompatible with such views. This article challenges the traditional definitions and separation of creative and technical labour and calls for an adjustment of the definition of creativity to accommodate the practice of how these concepts function in the 3D animation studio environment. Therefore, activities like problem-solving should be regarded as creative activities and be included in a definition of creativity, especially when researching creative contributions below the line in a collaborative environment. The mismatch between expectation and practice becomes especially visible in the conflict of the ‘feeling’ of authorship the animators and CTDs report. Below-the-line practitioners have agency and add their own ideas into the production process which studios appear to rely on. However, the product results in something greater than just the sum of its parts. Since this experience cannot be explained with traditional authorship approaches focusing on the author as an individual, the practice in the animation studio requires a collaborative authorship approach. Revealing these complex processes involved in 3D animation production affirms the significance of BTL contributions.

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1 Computer-generated animation.

2 Compositing consists in combining a variety of visual elements (backgrounds, characters, special effects…) to obtain a frame as it would appear in the final product.

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Sabine Heller, « Below-the-line creativity and authorship in animation: the reality of animation production »Revue française des sciences de l’information et de la communication [En ligne], 18 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 07 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Sabine Heller

Sabine Heller has been working in the 3D animation industry for over 13 years and currently works as Head of Characters at Blue Sky Studios in Greenwich, CT. She received her PhD in Film Studies from the University of Kent in Canterbury. She is primarily interested in the field of production studies in animation, women in animation, as well as theories of authorship and creativity. Email: sabhell.usa(at)

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