Are there hidden agendas within the animation industry to implant spiritualism and other dark, subliminal influences into their productions?”
Christian Creativity in a Secular Society
What’s true and what’s not about the entertainment industry?
By Hendel Butoy
Are there hidden agendas within the animation industry to implant spiritualism and other dark, subliminal influences into their productions?”
This is a common question I am asked by many Adventists when they learn I was an animator at a major studio for nearly 25 years. They are either disturbed by what they’ve seen, have heard of animation’s dark side from someone, or were directed to an Internet video presentation purporting to provide overwhelming evidence that diabolical agencies are at the controls, insinuating signs and symbols to communicate immoral influences.
As a director of production I was accountable to the top departmental and corporate executives. I knew and worked with many of today’s industry leaders since art college. In our early days we played volleyball and softball together; we went out for dinner, and dreamed of someday becoming good at our craft. A few of my colleagues had Christian leanings; others certainly did not.
Many of them knew me as an Adventist, with peculiar habits and observances. Some were curious, others were respectful; many really didn’t seem to care. Here’s what I observed behind the scenes.
What It’s Really All About
It’s 5:59 a.m. About a dozen lead animators sit in a small screening room ready to view a storyboard sequence from the studio’s next animated feature. There’s a sense of anticipation as we await the arrival of the executive who will either approve the latest installment or send us back to the drawing board.
The executive bursts through the door looking as though he’s had the best night’s sleep ever. “Good morning, good morning!” he says as he grabs some fruit and pastry and quickly sits down. He has a busy schedule today, and we’re first up. “Let’s roll!”
The projector runs, and everyone focuses on the screen. The executive responds with occasional laughs or throws out a brief positive/negative comment, but mostly remains attentive. When the screening ends, he might say, “Great, we’re almost there. But you guys need at least three more gags here and there. It’s a bit heavy. Can we lighten it up?”
The rest of the day is spent excitedly discussing and sketching among ourselves to satisfy the meeting’s notes and to make things clearer. Not every meeting happened just this way, but the number one thrust at every gathering was exactly the same: “Is anyone going to want to see this movie? How can we make it so that they do?”
There were never closed-door conspiracies or indoctrinations from dark masterminds on the techniques for embedding messages through subversive imagery for morally destructive purposes. No one ever spoke in those terms, nor were we ever instructed to use visual hints or other symbolic gestures with the characters or their environment for dark purposes. Everyone genuinely wanted to make something of high quality they could proudly show their own families.
The company was vitally concerned about its image with the public, because animation, like the rest of the entertainment industry, is first of all a business. The product is consumer discretionary, and the objective is to make a profit.
In some instances the studios take the philosophical view that animation has a unifying effect, crossing national and cultural barriers as people enjoy together something of high narrative and aesthetic quality.
It was not unusual to hear a speech at a wrap party emphasizing that animators were goodwill ambassadors to society and the world. Consequently, those who run the show look to produce whatever they perceive an audience is willing to watch and pay for. Entertainment is the watchword, and the product becomes as much a reflection of society as it is an influence.
Two Opposing Forces
So where do the more overt depictions of spiritualism come from, as well as allusions to disrespect for parental authority, irreverent humor, sexual innuendo, etc.?
Scripture is clear that there are divine and satanic agencies competing for the minds of humanity where various mediums can be employed, including the arts (Ex. 35:30-33; Hosea 13:2), and that Christians should carefully avoid what is inconsistent with new life in Christ.
The purpose of this article is not to identify these occurrences in animation, but to give perhaps another perspective than what is commonly presented within many Christian forums today. We have to take care not to give unbelievers, and even some of the faithful, the impression that Christianity’s sense of mission is to find the devil lurking behind every rock, frame, or pixel.
Based on the situations I observed, there are two primary sources for disturbing subject matter, not only in animation but within the entertainment industry in general:
The first is what might be called a “subconscious guard” against anything having to do with God or religion. The second has to do with the fallen nature and unregenerate hearts in the lives of those who produce the work.
The secular mind-set that dominates much of the animation industry applies an unwritten premise that most things having to do with God or religion are generally considered lame, unpopular, limiting, potentially controversial, and, therefore, bad for business.
For example, I recall one meeting in which someone tried to pitch a well-known biblical story as a possible feature film. Producers adept at recognizing great narratives responded positively that this would make a great movie if there was some way to leave God out of the story. That, according to them, would get more people to see it.
One animated feature in particular had a cathedral as its primary location. I recall the artists bemoaning the challenge they faced in trying to tell their story without showing overtly religious symbols in stained-glass windows, architecture, and furniture.
Such were the challenges of a secular-minded approach to art and business: notions that God had no place in the creative product. If such perceptions ever did make it into a story, they were usually relegated to a peripheral, nonconsequential presence.
It was not so much intolerance toward God and religion; there were times producers expressed appreciation for the principles they perceived from my faith, and even made extraordinary accommodations for my observance of such practices as keeping the Sabbath. They didn’t mind what you believed or how you lived; they just didn’t want your faith depicted in the work. The perception was that religion and entertainment just don’t mix, and that religion is generally bad for business. Hence the subconscious guard.
Right Without God
When fallen, unregenerate human hearts leave God out of anything, they essentially becomes godless, left to rely on humanistic versions of morality that are relative in nature: right and wrong based on feelings.
For example, in one of our creative meetings, when a conscientious artist expressed the view that perhaps less emphasis should be given to using trashy humor in our movies, another equally sincere artist responded, “One man’s trash may be another man’s entertainment”—the implication being “Let’s not censor trashy humor at the expense of entertainment.”
Interestingly, everyone in the room knew what trashy humor was; they just had varying opinions about using it. There is a consciousness regarding good and bad, but no absolute standard for determining its proper or improper use, and, much less, no power to perform it. Whatever appeals to secular tastes becomes the standard if it gets applause and is good for business. God and His Word are simply left out of the picture.
But when God is left out of anything—as in a vacuum—something else fills the void; and sometimes it may appear to look just as good. So the quest to discover and trust in one’s own deep intrinsic strength to overcome all odds (the theme of many hero stories) takes the place of dependence and faith in God’s wisdom and strength.
“Trust or follow your heart, or feelings” (another common theme), becomes as reasonable as trust in divine principles; fate becomes as believable as providence; human opinion as logical as God’s Word; magical powers as acceptable as miracles; and the creature as omnipotent as the Creator.
From this reference point, ideas, images, and content that tend directly toward spiritualism, along with their associated values, come quite naturally without the unction of any secret order or diabolical agenda. It is the inevitable result of unregenerate human hearts leaving God out of the picture.
Having an Influence
So what is the Christian creative role in secular society? How can we be in the world but not of it? Christian artists entering such an environment should do so prayerfully, because their faith is not likely to be nurtured; it will be challenged in many ways.
Nevertheless, if we start with the motivation for why we would want to be anywhere as Christians, we would remember that entertainment is not just about pursuing a career, but about reaching people. Many secular people are unmindful of the blessings available to them in Christ, and hunger for something better. God wants to reach them as much as He wants to reach those in foreign lands.
Christians entering this environment can study and look for ways by which God and His Word might be reintroduced in unobtrusive ways through casual contact and influence. It calls for conscious effort to maintain one’s own personal connection with God in order to be used as a channel to impart rays of truth that awaken interest toward eternal things. Opportunities are there, and people do sense something from individuals in whom Christ lives.
On occasion I had to work side by side with avowed atheists. There were those with varied lifestyles with whom I had opportunity to share my thoughts and convictions. In most cases they were the ones who came up with spiritual questions; it was not the other way around.
I don’t know where these people are today, or where their spiritual journeys will take them, but I saw evidence that God was speaking to them in those moments. Christian artists can have the same influences that Joseph, Daniel, Mordecai, and Esther had in their workplaces if they maintain a consecrated effort to remain connected to the Holy Spirit.
Like the Waldenses, we may be skilled at a craft and grounded in faith, venturing into the world with truth from the Word hidden away in our minds, ready to impart it to those ready to hear it.
Gaining respect from supervisors and colleagues through common courtesy and good work ethics is another influence. At one commercial company two of our graduates tell how their supervisors passed up a lucrative project when the students expressed concern about the content. In some cases people admire those who stand for something when it is presented respectfully and is in harmony with other values in their lives.
Apparently these graduates had gained enough respect from the quality of work and the life exemplified that their employers were willing to change course for their sakes.
When Christian artists are placed in leadership positions, there may also be opportunities to convey thoughts into the products themselves. On one occasion I became interested in depicting the principle expressed by Ellen White that “all our good works are dependent on a power outside of ourselves. Therefore there needs to be a continual reaching out of the heart after God.”1
At the beginning of this article I observed that the number-one thrust behind every production meeting was whether the movie being produced would be worth watching. The same is true of the Christian life. If Christian artists earnestly seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, their lives and work will testify of this in the workplace. They may sometimes have to make decisions about what they are working on, while other times they can be the voice of conscience to influence production choices and content.
Ellen White wrote: “It requires more grace, more stern discipline of character, to work for God in the capacity of mechanic, merchant, lawyer, or farmer, carrying the precepts of Christianity into the ordinary business of life, than to labor as an acknowledged missionary in the open field. It requires a strong spiritual nerve to bring religion into the workshop and the business office, sanctifying the details of everyday life, and ordering every transaction according to the standard of God’s Word. But this is what the Lord requires. Religion and business are not two separate things; they are one. Bible religion is to be interwoven with all we do or say. Divine and human agencies are to combine in temporal as well as in spiritual achievements.”2
This is not something inherent in us, and comes only as we deliberately seek to connect with God.
Scripture is clear: Divine and satanic agencies strive for the minds of humanity, and various powerful media are employed in this struggle. Christian artists can influence the secular workplace if their motivation is centered on God’s will and they are empowered with His indwelling Spirit.
We must be mindful about what we create, and what we allow our senses to absorb. We should remain keenly aware of the secular worldview, but careful about portraying the devil as hiding behind every frame or pixel, because he doesn’t have to.
If we are distracted from reading the Bible and meditating on themes of eternity; if we are not praying and contemplating the life of Jesus; if we ignore the regenerate life and walk in the way of our own choosing, we too will end up leaving God out, and something else will fill the void.
But this phenomenon works the other way, too. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Apparently the more our tastes, desires, and admiration for things change, the closer we get to Jesus.
Maintaining this relationship should therefore be the Christian artist’s top priority. There is a need for consecrated, creative people. By acquainting ourselves with God and His Word, the promise is that we will be continually transformed and guided by the Holy Spirit, receiving both the presence and power of Christ to live a life that testifies of Him in the workplace and in every other place.
1 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), p. 160.
2 Ellen G. White, God’s Amazing Grace (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1973), p. 64.
Hendel Butoy is a professor of animation at the School of Visual Art and Design at Southern Adventist University. He studied animation at the California Institute of the Arts before accepting a position as an animator and director at the Walt Disney Company in 1979.