Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Wally Walrus VS UPA part 2

OK, here's my theories as to why UPA happened, and why animators abandoned what they were good at. They might not be right, but at least it's a stab at an explanation for something so crazy to have happened. Maybe you have some theories too.


By 1948 there were many many brilliant animators who could do totally sophisticated rich cartoon movement. Their animation and drawings had level upon level of intelligent artistic principles, ideas and planning in every scene. Maybe this brilliant stuff was so easy for them that they started to take it all for granted. It was second nature to them, so they were no longer impressed by their own sophistication.

I know that in the 80s, I brought some tapes of Clampett cartoons to Bill Melendez to show him. He had previously told me how proud he was of his UPA work and how revolutionary it was. I seem to remember that when he saw the Clampett stuff, he had forgotten how amazing and sophisticated the animation was. In 1985, any animation from the 40s would look like superhumans from space did it, because everything had become so primitive by then.

We told him how much we loved the 40s stuff and he then agreed that it was the best animation ever done. The UPA stuff was more about the design and just doing something different and he was still very proud of that. He said it cost as much to do a limited animation UPA cartoon as it did to do a fully animated funny cartoon. I still can't figure that out, but of course I believe him.

So maybe some of the animators who could do such amazing feats of cartoon magic, just got bored with their own skills and wanted to do something different.


Real cartoon animation-the full stuff of the 30s and 40s is very sophisticated, but only animators would know that. The audience and the critics just thought of it as cheap throwaway fun entertainment, and as history teaches over and over again, entertainment and fun doesn't get serious critical attention. Or awards.

Some animators and directors needed to know they were doing something that was above cheap mass entertainment, something that had a higher meaning. Something that could get respect. Some cartoonists wanted to be "artists", not realizing that they had previously invented a whole new artform that could do what no other was capable of.

In the 30s, Walt Disney had the respect disease. He wanted to be up there with the bigshot Hollywood celebrities.

That's why Walt Disney kept imitating live action. He did Fantasia to try to get high brow critical respect. He figured if he did classical music in cartoons, real critics would consider him high class and hoity toity. It backfired. He couldn't stop himself from adding naked baby's butts, cutesy pie fish with sexpot girl eyes and hippos in tutus to the classics. This outraged serious music critics. It also bored the general audience who wanted cartoons to be funny.

So his method of gaining artistic respect didn't really work.


The animators who founded UPA tried a different tact. Most of them were highly accomplished animators. Bobe Cannon was a fantastic full-animation style cartoonist who had a really unique and fun way to move his characters. For some unknown reason, he decided to totally abandon what he was a genius at.

He and Hubley (a layout man and BG painter) and the other UPA guys decided to abandon animation, fun and lush movement and instead focus on "design". And not always good design either. They just wanted to do something that rebelled against both Disney and Warners.


The design that they did was nothing new to cartoons in general, just sort of new to animation. Magazine cartoons had been done in similar flat snooty styles for decades. Milt Gross had been doing highly stylized comics and strips for a long time-only is stuff wasn't meant to be high-class, it was meant to be fun.


They not only rebelled visually. They also rebelled against the happy aspect of cartoon stories, music and timing. They replaced the fun atmosphere of cartoons with a new kind of mood, super depressing, slow and bleak. The lead characters are wimpy bland people, rather than funny lively animals.


I agree that there should be room in all walks of life for experiments, variety and "different" styles but unfortunately people are slaves to trends. There isn't that much variety. When something new comes along, good OR bad that gets notice, too many others blindly imitate the bad with the good and abandon the good that already exists to follow the new trend.

In the 30s Disney tried to destroy funny cartoons and everyone copied him and abandoned what they were doing earlier to follow his wake of destruction. Luckily Clampett and Avery chose to resist the trend and made their own funny cartoons and in turn influenced the next generation of followers who mostly did bad imitations of Warner Bros. cartoons.

In the 50s we didn't have a Clampett or Avery to provide an antidote for the UPA wave of cartoon poison, so all the great traditions of fun cartoons just died with a whimper. No one even bothered to put up a fight!


UPA and flat simple cartoons are easy to imitate. Classic cartoon style is not.

This means that the amateurs can sneak in to the business and fool the execs and the ad agencies.

The worst effect of UPA was to kill the art of movement. The flat drawing style itself is not inherently evil. A lot of traditional animators made beautiful fully animated and clever commercials in the "UPA style".

Critics, being writers, not animators (let alone skilled ones) can only write about things they can put into words.

They write about everything except what makes the animation good or bad or fun.

The UPA "revolution" was designed for critics. They could talk about the abstractness of the films and the obvious departure from the traditional look. Because the cartoons are not meant to be entertaining, they must have some higher purpose and critics love to find higher purpose in everything. They love to talk around the subject rather than address the subject directly with clarity.

Instead they look for meaning, or "acting" or "story". Anything but the actual skill, entertainment and craft of the cartoon drawings and movement-the things that set cartoons apart from say, novels or stage acting.

The best book about classic cartoons is Leonard Maltin's "Of Mice and Magic". It gives a quick overview to all the studios in New York and LA and you can tell Maltin is a real fan of the good stuff. When he judges the cartoons, he judges them for their entertainment value and he is a much more open-minded and common sense kind of guy than most animation critics. I recommend it to everyone who loves classic cartoons.

But there is no book I'm aware of that discusses really what cartoons do that no other medium can do. That would take a cartoon animator. You may suggest Frank Thomas' books would fit that requirement. Frank and Ollie's books are basically Disney propaganda and they look down their noses at cartoony animation ...and the work of every other studio.

Now, with all the blogs and animators and artists discussing the work they've done and the work of the past that influenced them you can get a much broader view of cartoon animation.

It's very hard to describe artistic concepts in words. You need pictures, and in our case, animation clips to drive the idea and concepts home. The age of the non-artist critical theories of animation is over.


Summary of main points:

1) It's important to have studios like Walter Lantz with no strong creative control to allow the animators to create great animation without someone boxing them in to a style or a restrictive story.

2) UPA killed the idea that cartoon animation was about well drawn, funny moving cartoon animation. Flat simplified drawings allowed amateur artists to get into the business and that's a blow we have never recovered from.

3) Animation critics discuss everything except the quality of the cartoon animation and drawings and make people think that other add-on things are more important. Things that animation is not traditionally good at-acting, story, social statements, pathos, you name it - anything rather than the art itself.

1 comment:

Zoran Taylor said...

I'm no expert on UPA, but if their "serious" stuff is anything like The Telltale Heart, then there is definitely a point that's worth raising: what's wrong with horror animation? I hate blandness and stuffiness as much as you, but if the objective is to elicit a strong emotion, than that short utterly succeeded. It's completely chilling. I can watch Clampett until my eyes fall out, I am a genuine cartoon fan! But watching TTH, I don't miss slapstick or bright colours any more than I would if I were watching any classic black and white horror movie. Because that's what it is: a horror story. And as an outsider, my gut response is not to think they were looking for "respect": I think they just wanted to be creepy and dark for it's own sake, the same way classic cartoonists wanted to be happy and funny for it's own sake! Personally I have no trouble getting sucked in by either of those outlooks, because I share both of them. I agree that fun has been sorely missing in cartoons for a long time, but if there wasn't some history to back you up I'd say you're crazy, because even a cynic like myself can't fathom an entire industry trailing after a small clutch of artists who did something just to see if it could work. But of course, that's what happened. I just wish it could've worked out differently. If those UPA shorts didn't have such a negative impact, they could be better remembered and appreciated for what they are, NOT as a model for stuff that has nothing to do with them and thus couldn't benefit from their influence.