Sunday, November 9, 2008
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.