Hollywood is a system. That much is true today, and if in the past Hollywood has certain formulas for genre, these days they’ve created an even smoother assembly line for their franchises. While these franchises may vary in content, they almost all boast high-quality visual effects. Recently, more attention has been directed towards the near-impossible standards that effects artists have to meet, who often work day-in and day-out to produce them. But this is hardly a new phenomenon, as Hannah Hamalian’s short film The Golden Age, which I had the privilege of watching at our annual Revolutions Per Minute Festival, would tell you.
The film attempts to map out an injustice that generally flew under the radar of film history thus far. During the old studio era, when Disney began producing feature-length like Snow White, it divided the animation labor into stages; while male pencillers drew the outlines of characters, a class of women inkers were charged with doing the finishing touches on them.
The film opens with one of these women, lamenting how she wasn’t born a little later, because no one from her generation would be allowed into the penciling room. That sort of stoic melancholy, however, marks only the beginning of the film, as Hamalain takes the audience down a much darker road.
Hamalain infuses the film with eerie distorted sounds. Sometimes it is a character from the films, such as a singing dwarf, whose voice is rendered to a certain pitch, so artificial in its suppression to background that it makes it more of a haunting; sometimes Hamalain incorporates stabbing, sharp synthetic distortions, alerting the viewer, or simply heightens background white noise from old interviews. Indeed, artificiality defines the soundtrack, a hand at work that controls the pitch and expression.
The images are no less unsettling. Incorporating what appear to be unfinished cartoon characters, like Bambi moving his hoofs, close to the one we recognize and yet disturbing in its incompleteness, Hamalain seems to unravel the pristine, beautified vision which the Disney factory presented to the world of clean, smooth product.
Perhaps the scariest images are the behind-the-scenes footage. An industrial film, where a male voiceover triumphantly describes the “comfortable” air-conditioned workspace where dozens of inkers are packed in with one another, adds a bitter layer of irony to the whole affair.
But it’s the male manager in the background, cross-armed and monitoring everything, that sticks in the mind especially well. One inker describes the daily practice of a woman coming in with a tea cart, announcing herself, and all of the workers lining up for their cup. The deeply dehumanizing, almost authoritarian air that pervades the environment grows more odorous as the film goes on.
But how do they remember this experience? The inkers speak in such a matter-of-fact way, even about such degrading aspects as unequal pay, that one could interpret them as having made some peace with that experience. But it is that collected tone, simply stating the facts, that underlines the extent of the injustice which took place.
It turns out that some of the inkers were also enlisted as models, dancing for the pencillers as they drew Snow White in her own dance routine. They were imprinted into each and every frame, one way or another, and Hamalain successfully draws them out.