Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Animation Goggles

Just over ten years ago I sat on my first animation festival jury outside of ASIFA-East's annual jury screenings. It was The New York Expo, a now-defunct film festival that had been around for decades. I've since sat on a few other juries, most notably for the PISAF festival in South Korea. While on a festival jury you watch a lot films, take notes in the dark (so you can remember what you saw), and then gather as a group to discuss the films and choose the winners.

One of my co-jurists on The New York Expo was a very sweet older woman who had worked as a background artist, and I recall she would only evaluate films based on their design merit. It was as if she saw no other aspects of a film. She never said anything about a film's writing, animation, pacing, humor, storytelling, directing, or soundtrack. Her "animation goggles" saw only production design. I can't say this made her the ideal jurist, but she certainly had a clear point of view that she processed all animation through.

As the years rolled on, I have to come to realize that her "animation goggles" were not as unique as I thought. The evidence was everywhere. Whenever anyone criticized Bill Plympton's tendency to time animation on 8s, they were seeing his work through "animation goggles," judging his films by some universal standard that animation is supposed to follow. How dare Bill do artistic and successful work while thumbing his nose at the exacting standards and rules laid down in the golden age of animation! Recent comments posted by animation folks on various blogs discussing the Oscar-nominated The Illusionist also show the bias of "animation goggles," especially in how some are flat out rejecting The Illusionist because it's a serious film, not the feel-good "cartoon" they expect the animated feature to be.

Recently creator Loren Bouchard's series Bob's Burgers (pictured below) debuted on Fox. As you may know, I was the lead animator and supervisor of the NY crew (Dale Clowdis, Dayna Gonzalez, and Hilda Karadsheh) that made the pilot on which the series was based. On the premiere of the new series, Cartoonbrew featured a talkback on which readers could comment their feelings about the show. There were many negative comments based on design alone. It reminded me of the criticism that surrounded the look of The Simpsons when that series debuted in 1989. I don't presume that everyone should love everything or that we all have to agree on the aesthetics of a show's animation design, but I do propose that to dismiss a series based on this one criteria is to completely miss the point.

How should The Simpsons have looked? TV animation is a script-based medium. The Simpsons, South Park, and Beavis and Butt-Head (to name three successful animated TV series of the last twenty years), rewrote the rule book on TV animation––from writing, to satire, to social commentary, to graphic styling. But, that was hard to notice while wearing "animation goggles" that held all animation to one outdated ideal.

With time, most would have a hard time imagining the above three series looking any other way, even if the styles were off-putting when we first saw them. That's our problem as animation people. We are slaves to our history, to the very legacy and exacting standards of all the good work done before us. But we make a mistake of using all that against our selves, so that it clouds our judgement. Non-animation people don't carry around that baggage.

In the Jan 28, 2011 issue of Entertainment Weekly, they called Bob's Burgers and Archer two TV's funniest shows. That's a far cry from some of the feedback by Cartoonbrew readers who dismissed the new series at a glance. Entertainment Weekly evaluates an animated series against the rest of the TV landscape. In contrast, many animation artists evaluate a series based on how closely it adheres to the gospel of Bob Clampett.

Clampett deserves his place in history, but so does Matt Groening, Mike Judge, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. It's important to study and learn from the past and stay connected to our roots, but it's destructive to the growth of our art-form and industry to use all that rich history as a wall to shut out all other approaches. New artists and writers are going to continue to innovate either way, with our without us animation goggle-wearing artists recognizing their achievements. But, I can't help but believe that being able to recognize innovation might coincide with the act of being able to innovate. *Crunch* (the sound of me stepping on my animation goggles).


Michael Sporn said...

I have to admit I wear goggles when I watch animation - "Story goggles." The story has to be good for me to enjoy a show.

"Bob's Burgers" I like the design and animation, but the stories aren't good. I'll try it again in a couple of months and see if it's gotten better. Sometimes it takes time.

"The Illusionist" has the best story of any of the features out there. (The animation is also damned good as are the backgrounds.)

That's also my problem with the Plympton films - not the 8's. In my opinion, the stories are usually bad, especially the features. Guard Dog was great as was Your Face.

I thought the best animated short in the original group of Oscar nominees was Michel Gagné's abstract film "Sensology". It had the best story and was brilliantly drawn, animated and produced.

As a matter of fact, I like my goggles. I think I'll keep them.

David B. Levy said...

I'm fine with "story goggles," and I think story is a broad term that includes so many important elements such as character development, pacing, etc. The fact that you wear them when watching animation means that you treat animation as a storytelling medium and hold it to the same standards of storytelling that you do live action, etc.
That's good stuff.

My complaint is with those so traditionally minded that they don't understand or appreciate new approaches to the art form. Those are the wrong kind of animation goggles. And, they take their toll on our art form and industry.

Elliot Cowan said...

CB readers really did shit on Bob's Burgers although I doubt how many of them are wearing animation goggles as much as they're wearing idiot goggles.
My Uarts students are NUTS for it.

Personally, I'm always likely to dismiss an animated project based on the design (I dismiss a lot of stuff).
Bad design undermines everything the medium is about.
It undermines the reason 99% of us in the industry are there in the first place.
If there's no effort to make the show look good...innovative...interesting...whatever, then why bother in the first place?

For the record, I like the way SP, B&B and the Simpsons are designed.
They are designed to suit the style of animation.
The Simpson's went through a design evolution over several seasons - something that isn't allowed to happen anymore - and I have some respect for that.

Funny or not, the Archer show could not be designed worse for the animation style it's produced in.

Without a discerning eye there is no innovation.

Elliot Cowan said...

Also - most smart animation folks I know of aren't dismissing The Illusionist because it's serious, but because it's dull.

David B. Levy said...

I think all those shows are designed well too, Elliot, and that they suit the style of the animation/storytelling.

When I'm critiquing those who dismiss a show based on design I'm talking about the strain of people who only think animation should look like a Bob Clampett cartoon, for instance.

Design is a very important element, but if its the only element than its not even animation. As soon as something is animated it, the design becomes an element of a time-based medium, and that calls for attention to story, pacing, etc, sound, etc.

Design alone doesn't cut it. It needs a lot of other supports to make for a satisfying animated experience. Hence my issue with "animation goggles."

Elliot Cowan said...

Well I didn't get that entirely but of course agree.

Trist said...

It's funny how many people can't adjust to "The Illusionist." I was surprised to hear that people think it was dull, but I did hear the words "lost in translation" being used. (Which is funny, because there is little dialogue!) This film is a good example of how... isolated or singularly American animation has evolved so that if we are presented with a European film we are shocked that it isn't action packed and funny. At any rate, I think is beautiful to have Toy Story 3 and The Illusionist out there competing for the prize.

Kate said...

David, I can't tell you how much of a relief it is to read this. I'm an animation student and it's frustrated me for years when someone has dismissed someone like Bill Plympton or a film like 'Rock and Rule' as "bad animation". I'm at a different school now, but I used to study in a place that held one or two studios above the rest and this was the correct way to do animation and anything else that was different or ugly was Wrong. It was beyond aggravating to try and talk to my peers about something like 'Superjail', only for them to sniff about the designs or animation being bad, when it was just different from what they considered an acceptable style (and it's beautifully designed and animated). Glad I'm in a more creative place now. The shows and films you mentioned are some of my biggest inspirations for their innovation and creativity.

'Bob's Burgers' has such a bizarre, but hilarious design and the family stands out well from fantastic writing and acting. It seems like 'King of the Hill' never got the credit it deserved for having a consistent, realistic look to the production and for always having its comedy come from the characters. (It's also one of the few shows that has its female characters as part of the comedy instead of having a primary role as the straight man.) I'm thrilled 'Archer' is getting such a great reaction from mainstream press and I'm excited beyond words for the new 'Beavis and Butthead' episodes. 'The Illusionist' has an interesting story, but it's so melancholy I think it's throwing people off guard. It's still a brilliant movie and the tone shouldn't be changed to be more "crowd pleasing" since it's important to the film. Also the acting, designs, and environments are stunning. I went home to fuss around in Photoshop and After Effects to try and figure out how they did their mind-blowing backgrounds. (I'd go off about what's awesome about the other shows and films you listed, but I'm already straining the character limit.)

I respect and admire the old golden age style of animation, but it's not the dictionary definition of good animation and I'm inspired to see what's new. (Vimeo has been a wonderful resource with finding animated films with unique styles.) Thanks for sharing this!

Phil Willis said...


I agree.

It's so hard to dismiss your own biases when it comes to judging animation.

Personally, I love it when a film looks beautiful and has a great story. But those shows that score highly visually and in their storytelling are rare gems indeed.

I can tolerate an esoteric or non-existent story with interesting visuals. I can handle a crudely rendered film told well.

But the worst mistake is to have no art and no story.

Thanks for the post.

As always - very insightful.