Thursday, July 19, 2007

Individuality VS Standardization

There used to be more than 3 cartoon styles.

Here's where ours started...

When we say "design" in cartoons, nowadays we automatically think of the 50s - or maybe some people think Disney.

I'd like to challenge both those notions . I think the Golden Age of Cartoon design didn't happen in animation. Certainly not in the fifties.

It happened in comic strips somewhere around the 20s and 30s.

Why do I think that?


1) There was a huge variety of styles.

An age of design would mean lots of designs, not a single school of design.

2) There was more individuality in the styles- certain artists were masters of their own styles.

They didn't belong to a school of style like "The UPA style" or "The Cal Arts Style".

It was expected of popular cartoonists to each have their own unique takes on the world.

Of course, the most successful cartoonists had their imitators, but who remembers them?

Originality was expected in comic strips.

3) Comics reflected humanity.

Comics were about things humans think about and do or dream of. All sorts of humans. Animation characters and stories act and play like, not human feelings, but artificial animation feelings. We animators get our view of life from previous animated cartoons instead of from the world.

Polly and Her Pals, for instance is absolutely great design, but it's still about humans that act and feel like humans we ourselves consort with.

- all derived from one original style

Otto Messmer is probably the founder of "animation style". Everything being done even today can be traced back to him.
His design sense was partially aesthetic and partially motivated by practicality. He was a cartoonist who became an animator and then later became a strip cartoonist.

His designs are simple on purpose. Animation takes longer to produce than comics - for the simple reason that you have to do many more drawings in order to make things move.

But simple doesn't have to mean even or bland. It just means fewer details and easy-to-move proportions.

Messmer's drawing method is simple but the result is stylish and full of quirks. A variety of curves against straights, lots of uneven twists and turns. No simple math.

In the 20s and 30s, cartoonists were learning to animate by trial and error, so it made perfect sense to use characters that you could draw fast. This logic produced the fastest evolution in animation history.

From Steamboat Willie to Snow White in 9 years. Amazing, right?

But it came with a price....


Conformity and model sheets

Someone in the 30s decided that it would be a good idea to have every artist draw the characters the exact same way in the cartoon. This produced an averaging of the artists' styles and the "Rubber Hose style" came into being - a generalized version of Otto Messmer. (And Bill Nolan probably)

Otto's crowds have more varied characters than Disney.
The rubber hose style evolved slightly into the pear and sphere style in the late 30s and this was a bit more sophisticated but still based on the principles of "animation drawing" and still generic. The motion got smoother and more layered but this nagging idea of conformity held back individual creativity.

It didn't have to be that way and it didn't start out that way. At the New York studios in the early 30s, the animators pretty much drew each scene the way they felt it. The overall style was "rubber hose"- Messmer inspired but you could really tell the difference between different animators scene by scene.

Grim Natwick had a unique style that looked a lot more like comic illustration than animated cartoons and when it moves it really stands out as something special.

It's also very human. It's not a mere imitation of someone else's abstract principles. He's drawing life as he sees it and then creating impossibilities using the magic part of animation.

This Bimbo model sheets shows a bit of conformity to Disney starting to take effect.

Here is Disney's take on Otto Messmer's style. All the edges have been smoothed out. Every shape is mathematical and even now. Every character is the same design. Circles and ovals. Only one kind of bend and curve. Expressions are dead and mechanical.

Compare to the source.All the other animation studios stopped being human and started to imitate Disney. Part of what they imitated was this conformity and evenness and averaging of each individual's style into one all encompassing "animation style".

This style as a whole has gone through some changes-from rubber hose to Preston Blair to UPA but the changes were slow and changes that happened as a group to the whole animation community-even against the wills of many studios and artists.

This small animation group later lost the idea of quality and good principles and degenerated into some sub groups -

Saturday Morning Cartoons,

Disney Imitators (Cal-Arts) and



From the 30s on we have been stuck with the corrupt and creatively crippling ideas of


"Animation Style"

'Only Disney Style Is Quality"

"Animation should be believable" (meaning bland, without magic)

10 years of combining good animation with individuality

There was a second flowering of creativity in animation when Bob Clampett and Tex Avery reintroduced the notion of individuality in not only their stories and direction, but in the animation itself. They took the good things that evolved in 30s animation and put back the humanity that was being lost.

Clampett encouraged his artists each to draw in their own way and bring their own creative ideas to the design, personality and movement of the cartoons. Avery started doing that in the mid 40s and for a decade or so we had some very individualistic cartoons that didn't follow the "rules" and "style" of animated cartoons.

Collaborative or Herd?

Unlike the constant variety of individual styles in old time comic strips, in general throughout animation history, animation has made its small changes step by step as a group.

A mass of animators no longer influenced by other artists or by the outside world, but only by slightly varied versions of itself.

Pixar imitates Bluth and Burton, who imitate 60s Disney, who imitated 50s Disney who imitated 40s Disney and all the way back to Otto Messmer.

Dreamworks imitates Dic who imitated Filmation who imitated Hanna Barbera who imitated Disney and Warner Bros who imitated Otto Messmer, who probably himself had a wide variety of influences when he he started out.

Anime is extremely inbred.

Modern anime imitates Osamu Tezuka who imitated Disney who imitated Otto Messmer.


Animation has always had a huge philosophical difference than comic strips. At least comic strips before 1960 or so. Comics didn't have a preconceived house-style. Every artist developed his own style out of being influenced by an assortment of other artists and by life.

We need this in animation. It's always been our blind spot. We are so used to animation-thought that we get angry when our dogma is challenged.

Animation brings a whole new level of creative possibilities with it, but we have to shed our terribly stifling habit of imitating decadent versions of ourselves.

We should collaborate rather than move like herds.

Put all our styles together (those of us that have them) and add them up for a greater total experience instead of shaving off all our unique human quirks to become an average multitude of sameness.


We need an end to model sheet slavery, to animation schools that encourage decadence and to by-rote habits of thought.

Let's share good drawing principles but hang on to our own individual details and takes on life. And look around us.

Here's a time period when cartoonists did just that. What skill and variety it produced!