Daniel Arsham - Animal Farm Film Cels

Daniel Arsham - Animal Farm Film Cels

What did George Orwell and the CIA have in common? Perhaps more than the great socialist writer would have cared to admit. The groundbreaking visual artists Daniel Arsham and host Alice Loxton bring us inside the CIA-sponsored production of Animal Farm.
Read the transcript →

A History of the World in Spy Objects, Episode 9: Daniel Arsham - Animal Farm Film Cels

NARRATOR: What are the objects that define espionage? What secrets lie hidden in plain sight? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects. Some of the objects in this strange and esoteric collection will announce their intention on first inspection. Others might take a little prying before their true purpose comes to light. The exhibit sitting before you belongs firmly in the second camp. To wit, it is as harmless an artifact as you'll find here. Just a little assortment of drawings committed to thin sheets of celluloid film.

DANIEL ARSHAM: It's really a beautiful paint, actually. Very, very flat, clean, black lines to define the forms. 

NARRATOR: These painstakingly detailed drawings are stills from an animation. They depict cartoonish farmyard animals gathered in groups.

DANIEL ARSHAM: This animation cel has a series of cows and horses in reds and browns. There's a donkey on the far right, which looks a little bit aggravated. This one has one, two, three, four, five, six pigs with their mouths open. Obviously, the leader pig seems to be in the center and they're either singing or screaming. 

NARRATOR: Perhaps you already know what film these cels are taken from just from this description. It was more or less required watching for many who grew up in the West.

DANIEL ARSHAM: I don't know if it was in junior high school or high school, but I do have a pretty vivid memory of watching the animation and understanding the story - not from the perspective that I do today, which I think is much more - I don't know, with adult eyes. 

NARRATOR: The animated film in question is none other than Animal Farm - adapted from the novel by George Orwell. And the adult eyes reappraising this childhood classic? They belong to someone eminently qualified for a discussion of art, perception, and hidden meaning.

DANIEL ARSHAM: My name is Daniel Arsham. I am a visual artist. I live in New York City and the work that I do is really about investigating our perception, and our interpretation and packaging of time.

NARRATOR: When Daniel was at art school, he studied animation of exactly this style and so he sees the labor behind each image.

DANIEL ARSHAM: If we think about current-day animation - if we think about companies like Pixar, which are doing complete digital animation where there's light and there's rendering, those are all calculated by computers. And obviously, when all of this was hand done, there was a limitation because every second included 24 frames. So if you multiply that times the amount of seconds that you'd have to do - and the amount of individual animation cels that you'd have to hand draw - you're looking for ways to minimize the amount of time it would take to create an animation cel. So, typically, you'd have this kind of layering effect where an artist would create a backdrop. And there would be certain parts of the scene that would be moving - let's say the mouth of the animal speaking or the legs moving - and you'll notice when you're watching the animation that there are certain segments that don't move. So they're reusing previous animation cels to save the amount of time it would take to redraw all of this.

NARRATOR: But untold labor isn't the only thing lurking behind these seemingly innocuous film cels. And artistic expression isn't the only force that brought them to life.

DANIEL ARSHAM: Unbeknown to the animators who created the animated version of Animal Farm, that project was funded by the CIA.

NARRATOR: If you've listened to previous episodes of A History in the World of Spy Objects, you will already know that the Central Intelligence Agency's reach during the Cold War years extended well beyond conventional battlegrounds. Daniel himself already told the story of how the CIA secretly sponsored exhibitions of abstract expressionism - all in the name of cementing America's standing on the global stage. The approach had its very own name within the CIA: PsyOps.

DANIEL ARSHAM: So in the 1950s, following the Second World War, there was a big question about where world dominance or world power was going to lie. Certainly during the war, the Soviets and the Americans were allies, let's say. They had different objectives following the war. And I think as they were trying to establish dominance, one of the ways that the CIA determined that we could do that was to push American culture, American art, American films.

NARRATOR: Secret propaganda, influencing the attitudes and persuasions of people all around the world, under the guise of innocent art. The very notion is, frankly, Orwellian. 

DANIEL ARSHAM: The term Big Brother originates with Orwell in 1984, and I think his worldview was very skeptical and critical of power in general. The way that power corrupts, the way that governments begin to turn against populations in their pursuit of control may begin, as it does in Animal Farm, in a positive light, in a communal light, a kind of egalitarian light, and unfortunately often leads to corruption. And I think Orwell was very good at understanding that through the lens of everyday life.

NARRATOR: In the novel, Animal Farm, George Orwell wrote the story of an oppressed and overworked community of animals, who join together to overthrow their human tormentors and create a new egalitarian society. But soon enough they succumb to the corrupting influence of power and their idealistic dream curdles into a system even more oppressive than the last. The novel was partly inspired by Orwell's time fighting alongside a Trotskyist group in the Spanish Civil War and came to be understood as a thinly veiled allegory for what Orwell saw taking place in Soviet Russia.

DANIEL ARSHAM: And in this case, I think the PsyOps within the CIA recognized that Animal Farm contained this storyline that was maybe not entirely subtle, but subtle enough to be pushed toward the masses, that told a story about the dangers of communism. And the CIA was tasked with trying to purchase that storyline and the rights to that book, to produce this into animation.

NARRATOR: But the problem with that plan was that George Orwell, while critical of Stalinism, was also a vocal opponent of the capitalist foundations on which America had been built. He saw oppression on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

DANIEL ARSHAM: Certainly Orwell would have been on the left. He would have been interested in socialist causes. I think that his view around Stalin's interpretation of what that communist ideology should represent, he probably felt that was quite flawed and that the power that had been given to him under this communist ideology was misused. That doesn't mean that he would have been okay with the CIA using his work to push against that. I think he would have been probably quite upset if he knew that the CIA had been behind the production of the animated version of Animal Farm.

NARRATOR: But as fate would have it, Orwell would never find out about the American intelligence agency's designs on his story.

DANIEL ARSHAM: After Animal Farm was published, Orwell became quite sick and actually died. His newlywed wife was given all of the rights to his intellectual property, including the storyline for Animal Farm.

NARRATOR: And so the decision on whether to allow an adaptation of the novel fell to Orwell's wife, Sonia.

DANIEL ARSHAM: One of the funny stories around that is the widow of Orwell was interested in, obviously, the financial benefit of selling the rights to Animal Farm for this animation. But what she really wanted was a connection in Hollywood and specifically a date with Clark Gable. So Howard Hunt, who worked for the CIA and was in charge of - or very senior in their PsyOps division - was a fledgling screenwriter and had spent some time in Hollywood. He was tasked with trying to arrange a date, or at least a meeting, between Clark Gable and Orwell's widow. Somehow he managed to do this, probably through a series of intermediaries. And the date was arranged and the rights to the film were given.

NARRATOR: The CIA, working through a proxy producer in Hollywood, nominated a British animation company called Halas & Batchelor for the adaptation and plumped up the vast majority of the $350,000 required for its production. The filmmakers themselves were never told the true identity of their sponsors but they were subject to round after round of creative feedback from the CIA. The Agency wanted Orwell's message to be blunter. Where his novel had been a nuanced critique of the abuse of power in both the East and West, the film needed to be unequivocal in its condemnation of communism. Even so, when the film was released, it was widely praised. No one cottoned on to the truth of its making.

DANIEL ARSHAM: In the the earliest viewings that I had of Animal Farm, the animation, I was unaware of any sort of government propaganda. It felt to me like an artist's interpretation of how power might corrupt. Certainly, I was a fan of 1984. That film as well had, I think, a big influence on how I thought about the government generally. And in the case of Animal Farm, it wasn't until quite recently that I really understood how the CIA had gotten behind this animation and used it effectively for its own propaganda.

NARRATOR: Which was just as well for the CIA. Animal Farm found its way into movie theaters and school curriculums around the world, covertly disseminating the Agency's message of American superiority. Its very success lay in the covert nature of the operation.

DANIEL ARSHAM: I think the difference between the way that the CIA and the Russian - I guess at that time it would have been the FSB - they were much more overt, I think, about their use of propaganda. It wasn't hidden. The CIA was very secretive about its use because I think that they felt the knowledge that these things were, in fact, propaganda would have taken out their punch.

NARRATOR: And while George Orwell would certainly have been disappointed to see his allegory repackaged and put to use by the CIA, he probably wouldn't have been surprised. Orwell was, after all, deeply familiar with the interplay of art and politics. It's a minefield that all artists must navigate sooner or later.

DANIEL ARSHAM: Artists are interpreters of culture. Their job, in fact, is to digest and repackage everyday life through a new lens. They're tasked with revealing things that are unseen, with exposing realities that are sitting just below the surface. You can communicate certain things visually that are much more difficult to do with language. And so, the use of art as a political tool dates back to antiquity. Certainly, even if we think about the use of art as a way to project dominance, going back all the way to perhaps the ancient Egyptians - certainly through to the Renaissance and the use of art by the Medici family in Italy to project wealth, power, All of those things, I think, are how we as humans interpret the world.

NARRATOR: In other words, as long as there have been rulers with power to protect, there has been art created and distributed with the purpose of furthering their psychological hold on society. Though perhaps that tradition is finally drawing to a close now.

DANIEL ARSHAM: In the past, the CIA and government in general may have gotten involved in what we would think of today as cultural diplomacy. And in some cases, the use of art and culture as propaganda - I think today there may be some of that happening. I think the larger use of government resources toward propaganda today is probably within social media. And certainly, we've seen the manipulation through shadowy accounts and certainly the upcoming use of AI for deep fakes. I don't know that the art world in today's day and age contains as much dominance in terms of everyday culture as something like Instagram or Facebook in terms of its ability to influence the population. It's probably just a much more effective way to reach a populace through social media than it is through culture, unfortunately.

NARRATOR: All of which makes the scattered collection of film celluloids sitting before Daniel Arhsam appear rather quaint, now. They are a relic from a different era of animation, a different concept of propaganda, and a different theater of war altogether. I’m Alice Loxton. More secrets await in the next episode of A History of the World in Spy Objects.

Guest Bio

New York based artist Daniel Arsham straddles the line between art, architecture, and performance.

No items found.
No items found.