Sunday, November 15, 2009
Just on the Horizon
Leonard Maltin's "Of Mice and Magic" remains one of my favorite books ever written about animation. Where else can you read entire histories of the animated output of Famous Studios, Terrytoons, Columbia/Screen Gems, UPA, and so on. When Howard Beckerman assigned our History of Animation class this book, I had no idea that I'd end up reading it 25 times (no exaggeration) or that it would provide decades of inspiration as the most useful research tool in my library.
"Of Mice and Magic" leaves off in 1986 when the most recent news item was the success of "An American Tale." As hindsight shows us, just on the horizon was "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," the '90s Disney renaissance, "The Simpsons," Nicktoons, Cartoon Network, the modern preschool explosion starting with "Blue's Clues," and the edgy groundbreaker "South Park" followed by the ongoing success of the Adult Swim line up.
In 1986's "Of Mice and Magic" Pixar is not even a gleam in John Lasseter's eye, nor is Lasseter even mentioned. Disney is the only company that can make a financially (or even creatively) successful feature with the possible exception "The Yellow Submarine." Dreamworks doesn't exist. There is no Bill Plympton, Don Hertzfeldt, Spike and Mike Festival, or MTV Animation…yet.
In the frozen-in-time end of Maltin's book, there are virtually no signs of hope that this second "golden age" was imminent. And, even when it began to arrive, as late as 1992, I still had instructors at SVA tell me there was no work available in animation. The 1986 "Of Mice and Magic" allows us to compare everything past, present, and future to what is considered The Golden Age of Animation, and while that standard of measurement will not go away any time soon, it is no longer the only comparison point. Now we have the 1990s animation boom to examine, which trickled into this decade despite the dot-com bubble burst, the terror attacks on 9/11, and the economic collapse.
We don't know what will create the next golden age, but our industry is stronger than it was in 1986. For one thing, Disney is no longer the only company that can make a successful feature. (In fact, it has something to prove with its upcoming "Princess and the Frog.") In 2009, the animated feature is now an institution, something as durable as the action film or the romantic comedy and usually out-earning both at the box office. On TV, even if you're not a fan of Seth MacFarlane's block of animated prime-time shows, they keep the public seeing animation "for adults" on a nightly basis. Programming is no longer limited to movies theaters and TV, and the internet is no longer just a place for free exposure. Atomfilms.com pays animators to make films it can distribute or broadcast on its website. I'm wrapping up a series of paid shorts made for an iTunes podcast. And, let's not forget the indie animated feature revolution; not only have individual artists such as Bill Plympton and Nina Paley made features, but low-cost animated features are also being made and distributed worldwide to theatrical release. Compare these factors to what looked possible in 1986 and you might conclude that we're sitting pretty for the advent of the third golden age.
But then again, "sitting pretty" is never the way to make something happen. Just because we chose to work in this industry doesn't entitle us to a smooth ride. Our livelihoods and career satisfaction are ours to make. We do this by being aware of the possibilities and taking our future into our own hands. The health of our industry does not live in the headlines of "Variety," it starts at your desk.