Monday, November 24, 2008
There's a common misconception that the "industry" does something to the animation artist. The idea is that it makes us conform our styles and our independent spirits so that we might hope to be cogs in the wheel at a major animation studio. In reality the industry doesn't do that, animation artists make that choice themselves. Everyone is so busy trying to figure out how Tex Avery timed a gag, Jim Tyer drew, or Mary Blair designed. Sure, we'd have to lack a normal artistic curiosity not to want to figure that out, but to what ends are we prepared to apply that information? What's the end game?
Oddly enough, outsiders to our industry have led the way in making some of the most groundbreaking animation of our era. For the purpose of this discussion, I'm only going to reference TV animation because the incredibly low standards and conformity in that arena. On Nov 19, Don Hertzfeldt came to town for a special set of screenings at the IFC center and the packed houses were treated to a set of unique films by this modern young master of indie animation. During the Q and A, Hertzfeldt revealed he has a TV deal, and one can only assume its for his own pilot or series. The filmmaker now joins a long line of outsiders who have stepped in to create the most original animation on the tube. The list includes Mike Judge (a self taught animator who learned to animate by making the first Beavis and Butthead film in his garage), Matt Stone and Trey Parker (live action film students who dabbled in cut out animation that most animators would scoff at), Matt Groening (the indie cartoonist who's first foray into animation was when he was drafted to dash off short animations for The Tracy Ullman Show), and Tom Snyder (the educational software company owner who devised a show with comedian Jonathan Katz that employed illustrators-not animators to create the series, Dr. Katz).
These outsiders never spent two seconds trying to imitate how Chuck Jones subtly raised an eyebrow, or to discover how Art Babbit broke the joints, or figure what sets apart each of the nine old men. And, they certainly wouldn't care to get into a debate as to the differences between each Pixar release or on how well Lasseter is doing as head of Disney. In contrast, we animation artists define ourselves by those very interests. It's what makes us "animation people." And, it's also what makes us take second place to the trailblazers listed above. They pull their influences out of life experiences as well as from inspirations coming from other mediums such as painting, sculpture, live-action cinema, theatre, etc. Is it any wonder that their creations take OUR medium to places we would dare not dream?
I know there's a degree of over-simplification in this argument. Some industry animation artists also have diverse interests, but I would wager that they tend to keep them out of their animation. This is because we are so busy scrambling to make a living that we give all our effort to our commercial work and leave none of that time or energy to ourselves. With such an equation, how could we be the groundbreakers in our own industry? The outsiders have a further advantage called "ignorance." Since they don't know the "so-called" limitations of our industry, they don't let anything block their creativity. To compete, we in the industry must learn to forget trends, fads, and commercial considerations that hold us back. Its as if we have automatic sensors telling us, "this will never sell," or "this project is too risky to be successful."
The last thirty years has seen the birth and boom of an interest in animation history and its checkered films and filmmakers, rescuing many from obscurity. Some, such as Chuck Jones, were even fortunate enough to live to see it happen and take a well deserved victory lap. I don't suggest we stop searching out our past, nor do I suggest turning a blind eye to where the industry is at today. Instead, I suggest we examine why it is that some of our best contemporary work has come from those who are not saddled by the negative baggage that comes along with being "animation people."
Incidentally, Herzfeldt's latest short, "I Am So Proud of You," (pictured above) is a masterpiece and its mature subject matter and sophisticated construction does animation proud, even though.... at the Q and A with moderator Amid Amidi concluding the screening, Hertzfeldt admitted, "I'm not an animator. I use animation to make films."