Sunday, November 9, 2008

Arrested Development


We are fortunate enough to have oodles of golden age animation collections available on DVD. More seem to be coming out all the time. In the last two years alone we have seen collections of shorts by Lantz, Warners, Disney, MGM, Famous, and (finally!) Fleischer. These collections house some of the greatest character animation ever achieved in the continuing history of this industry. Today, many of us lament that the standards of animation have fallen. While there are more animation artists working today than ever before, there remains the notion that draftsmanship standards have fallen. Taken with (creatively crippling) faster and cheaper production methods utilized since the TV animation era began, its obvious to conclude that the golden days were, well, simply golden.

While its easy to conclude this, its not the entire story. As I've collected and enjoyed box set after box set of these precious nuggets of animation's past, I've noticed something else–something beyond the "look, they used to animate on ones," and, "boy, could they draw!" Over time, I began to realize, that while these shorts set a technical standard of achievement unequaled since, they may have been equally responsible for our medium's arrested development. Creatively, there's only so far one could go with animation subjects starring dancing toys, cats chasing mice, rabbits outsmarting hunters, and woodpeckers pecking wood.

Much has been written blaming the "kid vid" status of animation on how animation was presented on television. In short, it was programmed at hours when kids would be watching, before school and after school. The brief period where animation first appeared in prime time (Flintstones, Jetsons, Bullwinkle), was just that. Brief. But, was TV (exclusively) to blame for US animation forever existing as primarily a children's media? I don't think so. Theatrical cartoons, such as the ones collected in these special DVD sets mentioned above, played their part as well. Sure, these shorts played to general audiences, but they were almost exclusively comedies, most of which skewed their appeal to the youngest seat fillers in a theatre. In the public's mind, animation equaled kid-safe comedy. Don't get me wrong, working within animation's narrow comedic box, directors, animators, and artists of all kinds did wonderous things. They built the foundation for this art and this industry. And, they made brilliantly entertaining shorts which, (as far as craft goes) are unsurpassed. One could argue, the success of these shorts (along with the Disney Features) built an industry and fitted it with a creative straightjacket at the same time.

All one has to do is think of the diversity of live action film from the golden age of animation to further understand how long animation has been restricted to the children's arena. In the 1930s and 40s live action film developed into many artistic directions including musicals, westerns, comedy, romance, dramas, period pieces, bible and adventure epics, gangster pics, science fiction, horror, thrillers, mysteries, etc. Yes, all of these directions were (in turn) reflected in animation, but only as comedy geared to general audiences, again skewing mostly to children. This was not the case in live action where films like The Lady Eve, Casablanca, and Spellbound (and hundreds of other classics of the day) were made for adults. Its now more than 70 years later and animation still has a long way to go before it is embraced by general audiences as a medium that can tell ANY story, and (more importantly) in untold creative ways that live action cannot.

Thank goodness UPA arrived on the scene just in time to dare to take animation into unexpected directions. Within less than two decades, UPA's influence would be passed on to the independent animators who would channel their own personal vision into films that could be anything and that could be made for anyone. Perhaps one day, the independent animation era (which began in the 1960s) will be as appreciated and celebrated as a box set of films where cats chase mice. One can only hope.

13 comments:

Tim Rauch said...

One thing I would add is that animation has been creatively crippled not only by audience expectations but also by those artists who make it. Too often individuals are involved in animation seemingly as a way to live out their childhood love affair with Cartoons. What animation, and all art forms, needs more of is people who use it to serve aims and tell stories quite unrelated to their love of Cartoons.

Felicia "The Flea" Spano said...

I agree with Tim's comment 100%! It's true what he says about people becoming involved in the business. For most of us, our initial interest came from our memories of watching Saturday Morning Cartoons and Disney movies that our parents would ever so casually place in front of us. This may have been my own experience, but even as a kid, the belief was that cartoons WERE just for children.

As time progresses, parents continue to uphold this animation stereotype while popping a video of some cartoon video to shut the kids up. One of the things that aggravates me the most about this viewpoint is that those DVD collections are only heard about by animation fanatics/film makers. We hear about them in animation magazines and sites like cartoon brew. Sites that are mostly swarmed with animation lovers as opposed to tabloid magazine readers (in which THAT number is unfortunately very high).

There's a rich and diverse amount of animated features and short films that could undoubtedly appeal to everyone. I don't so much blame the quality of animation for the downfall of GENERAL animation viewers. I think it's the other way around. We, as a community, need to invest our time wisely in trying to advertise these films and it would probably provide us with more initiative to create interesting designs and explore different types of animation. Question is. . .how do we do this? How can we (rhetorically speaking) make "Beauty and the Beast" appear to be this years "Changeling?"
Better yet....how do we advertise our films without using movie stars or anything media-infatuated?

Geez. . . I'm rambling. Think I'm gonna be up all night thinking about this one. =p

David B. Levy said...

Good point, Tim.. I totally agree.

Felicia,
I don't think we can pitch Beauty and the Beast as this year's Changeling, but certainly Persepolis had the depth for that. Isn't it interesting that Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks have the most resources and only make one type of film? A big missed opportunity.

It is happening slowly with films like Belleville, Persepolis, Waking Life, and a whole host of indie features on the way. But, the big boys aren't leading the way. This art form has been kept alive by the indies since the 1960s, not by Disney or the other giants.

Mike Rauch said...

Hear, hear! I'm excited to have the opportunity to contribute to change in what you're describing here. I'm currently reading a book called "It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want to Be". The author, Paul Arden, suggests at one point that we "blame ourselves", and that in so doing you give yourself the power to make change. I think that concept applies perfectly here.

Asterisk Animation said...

I agree with Tim and Felicia!

Biniman said...

Hi Dave! I just accidently discovered your fine blog via Cartoon Brew. Lots of great thoughts you got posted here!

On the Topic:
I think you are right, but the restriction of mainstream animation to certain genres (well actually, in regards to features, it's only one genre...) seems to be more of a western "problem". Somehow,the Japanese manage to sustain an animation industry in which much more diverse genres are possible.

Granted (I don't really know about any numbers...), I don't believe that the budgets for their feature releases compete with a typical Triple-A Pixar/ Dreamworks movie, but if I look at TV and DVD Animation, I see more different genres, "including musicals, westerns, comedy, romance, dramas, period pieces, bible and adventure epics, gangster pics, science fiction, horror, thrillers, mysteries, etc." (well, I don't really know about japanese bible anime...) :D

I think btw that the same is true for japanese <-> american comics. To a western eye, japanese visual styles may look "all the same", but at least here in Germany, Manga and Anime offer a variety of stories and themes that traditional western comics and animation have never offered on a remotely "mainstream" scale.

That is the reason imo, why they sell much better than their western counterparts. Especially the german comics market has grown profoundly since the (comparably late, look at France..) introduction of manga some 10-15 years ago.

And I think what Tim and Felicia were writing is right too. A lot of the animation enthusiasts (such as us) on the web seem to be very specific about what kind of animation they write and read about. On a popular site like Cartoon Brew, you just won't read news often about anime, or about how South Park aired an episode about President Obama 1 1/2 days after the election (which btw can be seen for free on southparkstudios.com).

So as everybody said, maybe it's most important to first look at ourselves and to consider, whether we are open-minded enough, to open up this art form and this business.

Felicia "The Flea" Spano said...

I couldn't agree with Biniman more. Outside cultures have a much higher respect for this medium than our country does. I believe it was Brad Bird who once that animation wasn't a genre, but a tool or medium.

You're totally right, David! It's interesting how those studios with such a large budget DO only make one type of film. Granted some of those films are pretty fun to watch, but it'd be nice to see something experimental. I know it's a cliche thing to say, but I guess it really is all for the money. It's easy to sell to kids and even if it's a flop, they're still making money off of kid-curiosity.

By the way, I shouldn't have compared Beauty and the Beast to Changeling. Persepolis is a better suit, but you got what I was talking about. ;)

P.S. Mike Rauch. . . I think you just recommended the next book I'm going to read. Sounds like a great read. Thanks for mentioning it! :)

David B. Levy said...

Hey Bini,

You nailed it. Nobody can deny that animation is perceived differently outside the US. I was writing about the blind hero worship we (in the US) extend to our own golden age of animation.

This week I just saw the work-in-progress of Mike and Tim Rauch's new film and it gives me hope that there are brilliant new talents out there that are taking the craft of the past and applying it to important new works.

Elliot Cowan said...

When I was a teenager I was obsessed with Warner Brothers cartoons - particularly Chuck Jones films from who I still steal from.
Somewhere along the way I became less interested, like when you have a song you really love and you listen to it too many times, or a comedy routine to which you know all the beats.
I found new things that meant more to me.
There's an energy that comes with the stories you hear about timey studios that makes a person long to be a part of something similar.
A special club, a gang, whatever you will.
This mythology is perhaps what draws many people to the medium, rather than the desire to tell stories (perhaps there's a post somewhere about being an animator vs being an animated film maker).

If anyone asks me these days who my favorite animators are, I say "My friends".
They are the people who have any real influence my film making.

On a vaguely related note:
I have an older friend who has met and spent time with many of the old time animation legends.
He noted that the one thing they rarely talked about was animation...

Michael Sporn said...

UPA did change the look of animation with bold 20th Century art, however the stories were definitely for children. In fact, many of their stories actually spoke down to children (which Disney and Warners didn't do.)

Animation only grew up with the advent of John Hubley's consistent production of more adult themed stories and even more advanced art. Others were doing infrequent grown up animation by the mid fifties, but the Hubleys continued through years and got the exposure needed.

David B. Levy said...

Elliot,

Your comment, "(perhaps there's a post somewhere about being an animator vs being an animated film maker)." might just inspire my next blog entry!

Michael,

I suppose I was thinking of "The Tell Tale Heart" and the graphics of UPA in how they advanced the medium. "Rooty Toot Toot," is very sophisticated too and I consider it a film more than a cartoon. Not that they can't always co-exist.

I just finished a new kids film of my own creation and now I'm making a kids film for a client, so its funny to be leading this discussion while doing that.. but, my belief is that one only has to be honest when making a film. Make it for the right reasons, without trying to ape trends or recreate the past just for the sake of doing so. I couldn't be happier right now as a result. Hopefully the results will demonstrate that joy.

Elliot Cowan said...

"my belief is that one only has to be honest when making a film. Make it for the right reasons, without trying to ape trends or recreate the past just for the sake of doing so."

I could not agree with more enthusiasm or passion (unless it was after a few drinks in which case it would be about the same amount of enthusiasm and passion, but at greater volume).

Mike Rauch said...

I think it's important to note that is possible to produce content for children that isn't standard "kiddy fare". To take kids seriously, respect them, and recognize them for the intelligent, curious human beings that they are.