Monday, January 12, 2009

Why Cartoon Animation Steered Off Course

It happened in the late 40s.


From the 20s and through the 30s animation exploded as an art form. From simple stick figures to a whole new discipline that took advantage of a visual element that was never possible before - movement.

A few animation "principles" were developed and refined within less than a decade!


Animation, born of the also recent invention of cartoon art and comics was a whole new way of looking at the world.


It took all the boring parts out of life and just left the fun parts. It was fun to look at and fun to watch move. It told funny, ridiculous stories. It was the ice cream of the arts and because of it became the most popular of all the visual arts. Most people like fun - except executives who prefer market research.

To me the first half of the 20th century could be known as "The Cartoon Age" just as well as "The Jazz Age" or "The Age Of Progress".


Astoundingly, this unbelievable new creative medium didn't get much respect - surely because it was so inventive and obviously directly enjoyable by so many people.

Some comic strips artists were respected (and made tons of money) but animators - who were doing a much more sophisticated form of cartoon got paid less and no respect. Most animators, excluding Walt Disney, were practically anonymous - unlike their comic strip counterparts who were rich and famous.


Even the best draftsmen of animation's Golden Age couldn't draw as well as the average illustrators from the same period and I think many suffered an inferiority complex because of it.

This was probably mostly Walt Disney's fault. His own inferiority complex was contagious and poisoned much of the rest of the business.

He diverted almost everyone away from their natural cartooning instincts and made them all want to create "quality" rather than fun. Quality meant animating things that other mediums could do better and much more easily, like:

More detail
Human proportions
Elaborate special effects
Tribes of Naked Babies

None of these things lend themselves naturally to animation. They just make the work harder and eat away precious time that could be better spent being imaginative and doing what only cartoons and animation can do.

But creative cartoons and impossible magical animation don't get respect, remember. They just generate tons of money for the studios that release them - who in turn crap on the artists who made all the money for them.


Animators too busy comparing themselves unfavorably to illustrators, comic strip artists, live action movies and other related forms of art didn't realize how wonderful and unique their own skills were. The things you could only do in cartoons and the crazy amount of skill the animators developed in performing them came so natural to them that they didn't think much of them.


What we think of today as "animation principles" were pretty much figured out by 1940 and nobody invented any new ones after that. For a few more years, they developed and refined this handful of techniques and produced the best animation in history.


While most animation leaders stopped developing new techniques in movement itself, they instead started thinking about "improvement" coming only from the drawings themselves. Different studios and leaders approached this in different ways, but all of them slowed down or reversed the tools that made animation its own unique art form.


Disney kept designing more and more complicated or "realistic" characters. They didn't change the way they moved them so much, just made it harder to move them.

Taller proportions-long legs. Much harder to move convincingly.

More detail - the more details on a character, the slower and more difficult it becomes to animate the character. More effort is expended on just not making jerky mistakes than on making the characters fun and entertaining. For 25 years, Disney's characters became harder and harder to draw, but the animation hardly varied at all. The characters moved the same way the simpler characters did - according to old Disney formulae.

Other animators see how technically well animated these elaborate Disney features are and know the incredible effort that went into them and are impressed. This doesn't automatically impress laymen or the audience though.


Chuck Jones developed his own unique drawing style and humor and year by year, toned down the animators' input or directed it to point to Chuck's poses and expressions. By 1948 he was making his funniest cartoons, but the animation was less inventive and fun for its own sake than just a couple years earlier.

By the late 50s the animation had become completely stiff and Jones' drawing style tastelessly out of control.


Magazine cartoonists drawing for Punch or The New Yorker got a lot more intellectual respect that cartoons from the "funny papers" or animation. Don't ask me why. The UPA artists drifted towards these graphic styles and abandoned creative movement - and definitely funny drawing almost altogether.


By the late 50s most non-Disney cartoons were left without clever and fun motion. Instead they traced back layout poses to make evenly timed inbetweens. The characters talked a lot more than they moved.

Disney continued doing elaborate movement because they could afford to and they believed still that that was what animation should do - it should move. At least!

But it was mostly movements you had already seen before in previous features.

The exception would be the imitation UPA cartoons they did - the ones you see imitated in all the "Art of Pixar" books.

These flattened Disney cartoons look to me like a misunderstanding of the UPA philosophy. Disney made harsh looking cold designs, but animated them very fluidly as if they were still animating Mickey and Donald. It's definitely clever (the first time!) but not very entertaining - except to Cal Arts alumni.


All growing art forms need bold charismatic talented leaders. Clampett was the biggest most influential leader in funny cartoons for the first half of the 40s and everyone imitated him - even Disney was obviously influenced.

His cartoons were constantly inventive and he wasn't a total slave to the "Disney principles". He more than anyone, kept expanding the medium of impossible movement (animation) and dragged the rest of the business along with him while constantly creating and developing characters.

Then at the peak of his inventiveness and the peak of the Golden Age - he up and left!

Some say he was fired, he says he quit. But I think this single event in animation history was the most catastrophic thing we've ever endured. His momentum carried Warner Bros. for a few more years even as they gradually slowed down, but it created a hole in the art form that has never been filled.


Tex Avery was the last leader to continue doing cartoony inventive animation, but he had less influence than Clampett because he didn't create characters. He made gag cartoons based on funny ideas rather than stories about funny personalities.

History has decided to award him the creation of Bugs Bunny, somewhat arbitrarily in my opinion - but how could it be that someone who created the greatest animated cartoon character in history could never again create even 1 character that the public really wanted to follow?


Tex still made some of the funniest cartoons ever, but we remember Chuck Jones, Hanna Barbera and Disney more. - because we associate them with casts of characters. Most humans would rather watch continuing adventures with characters they are familiar with than a series of brilliant one-shot cartoons. Of course we love star characters the best, but we'll even take less charismatic continuing characters if there aren't any stars around.

It's a natural impulse for us to bond with friends. We bowl with our neighbors and party with them - even if they are not the most interesting folks in the city. Today's networks have come to realize this. They will leave a boring series on the air long past the period where they aren't getting ratings - because the audience will soon get used to the characters and accept them and even believe they are entertaining. Especially since there is no competition.

Tex was the last guy to uphold cartoon animation's roots, but he wasn't enough of an influence by the 50s to halt the ever more decadent trends that the rest of his colleagues were following.

Progress died and even worse - cartoons as a unique form of entertainment and art died.


oppo said...

Not to mention that Tex Avery made those UPA style Lantz cartoons like "Crazy Mixed Up Pup" and the like...

JohnK said...

He did the UPA style right!

PeteyX said...

Nice! I was just thinking the other day that I didn't see as much Tex Avery love here as I'd like. Sometimes ya get what you want.

oppo said...
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Anonymous said...

It's all in perspective, now.

I see how it all went wrong.

You know, John, I've read somewhere that Mr. Jones didn't care much for Bob Clampett.

"Though Clampett's contribution to the Warner Brothers animation legacy was considerable and unarguable, he has been criticized by his peers as "a shameless self-promoter who provoked the wrath of his former Warner's colleagues in later years, for allegedly claiming credit for ideas which were not his." [2] Chuck Jones particularly disliked Clampett, and made no mention of his association with him in either his 1979 compilation film The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (in which Jones lists himself and other Warners directors) or his 1989 autobiography Chuck Amuck. Some of this animosity appears to have come from Clampett's perceived "golden boy" status at the studio (Clampett's mother was said to be a close friend of cartoon producer Leon Schlesinger), which allowed him to ignore studio rules that everyone else was expected to follow. In addition, Mel Blanc (the legendary voice actor who had worked with Clampett at the same studio for ten years) also accused Clampett of being an "egotist who took credit for everything." Beginning with a magazine article in 1946, shortly after he left the studio, and increasing as years went on, Clampett repeatedly referred to himself as "the creator" of Bugs Bunny, often adding the side-note that he used Clark Gable's carrot-eating scene in It Happened One Night as inspiration for his "creation." However, a viewing of the early Bugs cartoons of the late 1930s and early 1940s clearly demonstrates that the character was not "created" as a whole at one time, but rather evolved in terms of personality, voice and design over several years through the efforts of Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Cal Dalton and Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, Robert McKimson, Sr., and Mel Blanc, in addition to Clampett's contributions."

Of course, Wikipedia also told me tomatoes cause cancer.

dwestburg said...

Tex Avery created Daffy Duck and Droopy too. Granted they may not be as popular as Bugs Bunny but I don't think it's fair to say he didn't create other characters the public wanted to see.

JohnK said...

Many people (including me) credit Clampett with Daffy Duck's personality.

He animated the first Daffy and directed most of his cartoons in the 30s, where he continued to develop his personality.

The other directors (including Tex) didn't seem to understand him. Daffy is merely obnoxious in Tex's cartoons. Friz never like him and you can tell in the cartoons that he didn't feel his "daffiness" sincerely.

Tex invented Droopy - whose personality is that he doesn't have one.

He still made the funniest cartoons ever though. And super inventive too.

Jay Sabicer said...

John, I think the one thing you may have missed is the nature of the movie business as well. In the 20's thru the early 40's, an individual would go to the movies 2 or 3 times weekly! The motion picture industry was thriving beyond all imagination and had gobs of disposable income to provide newsreels, short subjects, and animated cartoons. Cartoons were outsourced, for the most part--Schlesinger for Warners, Disney made the rounds at Universal (Oswald), Columbia, and RKO, Terry for 20th Century, et al. When the bottom dropped out of the movie industry (some say during WWII, others say just after), costs had to be cut. First, consolidation: Warner Bros. bought out Leon, and Walt started distributing shorts on his own (having moved to producing live-action features, as well). Then, production budgets were cut. The UPA style was more a financial necessity than most would admit and Columbia, being the tightest studio with budgets fit hand-in-glove to Steve Bosustow's more limited, stylized output.
One could say that the post-war influx of better-educated people (GI Bill recipients who'd gone to college) entering into the entertainment business also created a culture of accountant and later, lawyer controlled administration. With that much "anti-creative" powers-that-be, it's little wonder by the 1950's, the golden age had ended.

Elana Pritchard said...

If animation is such a new art form do you really think it is fair to say that it is dead already? Maybe it is just going through a lull for a bit. Sure, maybe America got really cheap and lazy for a couple decades, I'll give you that. Those decades also happen to be the decades a lot of us who follow your blog grew up in so we didn't know any better for a while. But if you've ever seen a burnt down forest a couple years after the fire, there are always little green plants growing up out of the big beautiful trees that used to be there before. I guess the point of what I'm saying is that you never know what people are going to end up doing in the future, how technology is going to change, what people's attitudes are going to be, and what new ideas people are going to come up with. Just because everything is shit now doesn't mean it's going to be always. I truly believe the more you think an idea or art form is dead, the more likely it will stay dead in the future. You can turn a blind eye to the little green plants if you'd like, but they are going to grow up into something someday.

dwestburg said...

That makes sense. I seem to remember seeing an interview with Bob Clampett where he talked about animating the final scene from the first Daffy cartoon where he did all the crazy WooHoos.

Tex Avery is my favorite so just wanted to make sure he got his props. :)

JohnK said...

"The UPA style was more a financial necessity than most would admit and Columbia, "

Melendez and others told me UPA had budgets around $35,000 per short - very good for the time and that they often went over budget.

mike f. said...

Another crucial factor - one that would eventually kill the theatrical cartoon altogether - was the slow demise of block booking, a distribution practice that first became the focus of "controversy" in 1942, by an attack group with the appropriate acronym: "SIMPP"...

"In 1942 when the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers [SIMPP] began its attack on the Hollywood studio system, the group of filmmakers singled out one old-time studio practice to focus its opposition. That controversial practice was known as block booking. Block booking meant that a studio would sell its films in packages on an all-or-nothing basis...

Block booking made it difficult for the independents to get their own movies into theaters when exhibitors had already purchased a block of films that would provide the theater with plenty of movies...

The producers believed that block booking encouraged slack filmmaking by forcing inferior films on the theaters and the moviegoers. In an open letter from 1942, the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers called the practice "the root of all evil in the motion picture industry."

The SIMPP members brought this obscure practice to the fore until the courts finally abolished block booking—which has remained illegal to this day."

...Block booking has been more or less illegal since 1948. That was really the beginning of the end of the studio cartoon - until television finished the job for good.

mike f. said...

More on the after effects of the ban on block booking - specifically how it impacted the Short-subjects and Animated Cartoon industries. (This material was copied from the Hollywood Renegades Archives database...)

Another side effect of the end of block booking which has been lamented by industry reactionaries has been the decline of the short-subject and the demise of the theatrical animated cartoon. During the studio era, all of the Big Eight distributors maintained their own in-house animation units or developed intimate ties with independent animation producers like Leon Schlesinger (Warner Bros.), Max Fleischer (Paramount), Walter Lantz (Universal), and Walt Disney (United Artists and RKO). Live-action shorts also provided a useful function by providing a test venue for fresh faces on the verge of stardom or new directors looking for a break. Before full-line forcing was disbanded by the Consent Decree of 1940, the studios would block book an entire series of shorts along with the feature packages. But even with this built-in market, the shorts were always in jeopardy of being squeezed out of the program, especially with the rise of the double feature. When the distributors were forced to tighten their belts after the Paramount decision, the short subjects took the hit. The live-action shorts were quickly phased out, while the animated cartoons held on a little longer.

The problem with the animated shorts after the Paramount case was that the studios did not immediately disband their animation divisions but had imposed cut-backs that eliminated quality and allowed the cartoons to diminish. The studios stopped creating new animated characters, and without the influx of new cartoon superstars, the market for animated shorts stagnated until the theaters removed the shorts altogether. In spite of surveys in recent decades that have indicated that theatergoers favor seeing extra shorts in addition to the regular feature, the return of cartoons to the theaters has been mostly speculative. The distributors have been unwilling to try to market new groups of shorts, and the major theater chains have been reluctant to try out a potentially lucrative cartoon series that would enhance the audience's theater-going experience.

John A said...

Funny how almost every cartoon that copied the UPA style turned out to be more entertaining (and in most cases, better looking)than the shorts made by UPA themselves.

Most UPA shorts bore the shit out of me.

Rick Roberts said...

"He made gag cartoons based on funny ideas rather than stories about funny personalities."

Well he did very interesting studies on common behavior such as Slap Happy Lion for example which is infact a very interesting study on bullying and the real cowardice behind it. Just look at the aftermath everytime the lion roared. Everytime he was finished roaring he looked like a buffoon, because that's what he was behind the macho demeanor he carried. His bark was far worse then his bite. When the mouse came into the picture, he was scared because he saw something that all bullies fear from their victims, self confidence. When someone finally stood up to him it first made him mad then was driven to insanity.

"Tex invented Droopy - whose personality is that he doesn't have one."

He's modest and shy despite the fact he is capable of doing anything, that's what makes him endearing. At least to me and I don't think I am alone on that one. No he wasn't as good as Bugs but he definetly invented the wabbit. Tex invented Bugs and Daffy but I feel Clampett did perfect them.

Alex said...

well, I see what's wrong here...

how do you intend that the problem be fixed? What do we all (as animators) need to strive for, in your opinion? Clearly you're on the right track; but what will it take to get the idea past the business executives? What's the catch that's needed to get people to demand the product, rather than have it shoved down their throat by a network?

Bill Perkins said...

Hi John.
Great post ! Couldn't agree with you more. I certainly felt Disney feature stuff fell of by the end of the 40's although they did some wonderful shorts thru the fifties. Like wise I liked UPA and Chuck Jones work thru to about 1956. I ALSO like the early H and B stuff but that is due to my fondness of Ed Benedict's design work. Animators are special cats.. no lack of drawing ability but a very specific application of that talent. You're right -- we're not illustrators, commercial artists, graphic designers and I do believe a lot of animators suffer from a inferiority complex. Bob Clampett certainly was a leading light in what we know come to think of as "Cartoon Animation" . I've always contended that to have the public at large appreciate his contribution his films need to be viewed not by themselves only but alongside the work his contemporaries were doing at the same time-- a comparative screening if you will. THEN a larger audience, outside of animation fans, might appreciate how far ahead of the pack he was. Bottom line is Cartoons were more fun when they were CARTOONY ! Great posts, I've read everyone of them. Keep up the good work.

Isaac said...
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Brian Goss said...

I always loved the slow talkin' Southern Wolf in Tex Avery's later MGM cartoons. I wish he'd made hundreds of those. The Three Little Pups and Billy Boy are hilarious!

Doug said...

My copy of Porky's Duck Hunt only lists Virgil Ross and Bob Cannon as animators. Obviously they didn't do the whole thing themselves, and I don't doubt Clampett animated Daffy in that cartoon...but where do you look to find complete credits for old cartoons like that one? The only source I ever saw was an old interview with Clampett where he took credit for the scene.

crazeziggity said...

It's funny how you rarely mention one animator/director whose cartoons I find especially funny and inventive: Frank Tashlin! He quit right around the same period Clampett did- the late 40's. I find his work and Avery's to be the most entertaining I've ever seen. Definitely underrated.

Rick Roberts said...

"I always loved the slow talkin' Southern Wolf in Tex Avery's later MGM cartoons."

I always say that he's Huckleberry Hound except that he's funny.

Oscar Baechler said...

I know this technically got to the end of title's point of when animation went wrong, but feel free to continue through the next six decades!

Just a warning, the URL for this post sends a very different, super-supportive cheerleader message than the post title. "Why animation steered, of course!"

Niki said...

Halfway through this, I started to cry. Why can't this whole situation be fixed? Why isn't there anyone in the world, who has some resources and money, that wants to promote something fixing these kinds of problems? Cause for some reason people want to do something and don't learn it, then they fail and wine when the few people who do it are better than them.

Didn't any of the good guys think of becoming teachers? I think that would really have helped to reveal how complex animation really was, and I hopefully would have stayed enjoyable.

Oscar Baechler said...

"Critics decide if a form of entertainment is art by its genre and sub-genre distribution. A medium has to include powerful drama and tragedy to be considered art. Most cartoons are comedic, few are dramatic, and fewer still are tragic. If cartoons can't make a convincing tragedy or drama, they can't be art."

If you look at the Oscars, this bias is incredibly depressing. I did a speech on it in college about how the Oscars needs a "Best Comedy" section to both recognize great comedy and encourage a comedy market aiming above the lowest common denominator. Despite owning a huge chunk of the market, a comedy film hasn't won "Best picture" in about 40 years, not since Woody Allen's "Annie Hall."

Gabriele_Gabba said...

I think Bob Clampett's cartoons were the best animated. He's a master of creative movement.

I find Tex's cartoon gags great in some of this cartoons, but more often than not its so impersonal that i'm left feeling a bit empty.

I think Chuck was a genius in giving the warner characters the strong contrasting personalities they were ment to have, sure he animated less, but he got me laughing more than the others.

I think Those 3 deserve strong credit and they all influence me.

Informative post John :)

HemlockMan said...

Other than an "attaboy", what would have been the profit of creating new characters for the studios? Perhaps Tex Avery realized this. (Sometimes, it has to suck to be Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby.)

Who created Droopy? Who created the generic coyote voiced by Daws Butler? Who created the Irish bulldog? Who created George & Junior?

At one point when I was a kid, I got really sick of Chuck Jones' style. It crossed a line where it was just so sweet it was sickening.

lastangelman said...

Whoa-ho, we've certainly touched a nerve. A large part of the problem today is that instead of embracing and building on the "Clampett" approach of cartoon animation by such studios as Bakshi & Spumco, animation studios totally missed the point during the "animation resurgence", supposedly signaled by Richard Williams work in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and instead adopted the most superficial and square, angular styles, characters and stories based on self referential postmodern irony, exploitative TV family values and way too timeworn sitcom situations as an excuse for cartoon humor, and an unhealthy reliance on software as a timesaving/laborsaving device, when it could be used to produce better, funnier, cartoonier pictures and movement.

John K's blog is certainly one of THE best resources to fight this anathema towards proven cartoon principles, but how does one fight uninspired, unenlightened directors, producers, suits, etcetera, set in their Cal-Art, post-hippy,non-anarchic ways? The fantasy, for me, is to find a youngish billionaire with some pull who loves old cartoons, is willing to drop money to start a good independent cartoon studio and distributor, with nothing the best people who know what they're doing, simultaneously starting a school teaching the stuff they leave out at Cal-Arts, and NOT sell either operation out down the road to uncaring bean counters.
This would be the right economic climate, believe it or not, to sell this idea. What this country needs to take its mind off its troubles is not another new mobile phone or portable music player or celebrity meltdown - it needs funny, funny cartoons, and lots of 'em, short, busy, anarchic, in the theaters on teevee and over the internet and in the video store. How patriotic would that be, making people laugh, forget their troubles and buying your cartoons - and merchandise - thus helping the economy?

diego cumplido said...

HEY, you can talk about cartoon characters on T.V and I agree with you. But the live action series done in the U.S are AMAZING and full of great, entertaining characters. Live action series are a healthy medium, at least on quality standards.

El Siglo del Ruido said...

I love Tex, i think those cartoons were the ones that impressed me most as a kid, a couple of years ago i was able to get a collection of all his work (thanks to the interblog) and its the funniest set of cartoons ever.
English is not my first language and some of the funniest Tex cartoons didnt even need dialogues.
I understand what you said about the characters but i think thats relative to your definition of the term.
I personally love the black cat (ventriloquist cat, bad luck blackie, the cat that hated people), i love spike, i love the little guy from cellbound and george & junior. I know they didnt have an ongoing series, but it would have ruined it for me if they had.
Its funny how this article made me realize why i always hated the 'human' looking characters in Tex's chartoons (red riding hood).
Well, thanks for this nice blog John, you've teached me more about drawing than anybody else ever.

Trevor Thompson said...


I think this is the first post I've ever read of yours that didn't have any pictures.

- trevor.

Rick Roberts said...

"If you look at the Oscars, this bias is incredibly depressing."

I also hate those damn AFI lists, they so dumb I am surprised no real artists don't come out and say how idiotic. A few stupid examples:

Michael Corleone from THE GODFATHER II is considered a villian. Hyman Roth was villian of that movie by trying to kill Michael, turn Frank Pentangeli on him, and manipulate his brother Fredo. Micheal was trying to protect family, the prime motivation of his entire character. Yes he did it to an extreme by going so far as to kill Fredo after his betrayal was exposed but nonetheless, he should be veiewed as the protagonist.

Shrek is listed as the 8th greatest animated film of all time. Do I even need to explain what the hell is wrong with this ? Freaken Shrek is there but what about HEAVY TRAFFIC ? SONG OF THE SOUTH ? FRITZ THE CAT ? TWICE UPON A TIME should be number 10 at least but no, it's FINDING NEMO.

Shawn said...

Brilliant writing!

When do we get the NEXT chapter?

30 years later...The birth of Spumco!

Zoran Taylor said...

Someone hates Red Hot Riding Hood? That's just sick! How repressed can ya get??

pappy d said...

Tex deserves more love. We might never have known just how big the envelope was if he hadn't pushed it so hard. Tex did invent Droopy. He was the only director who had a use for him. The wild contrasts in his animation needed a character who had no contrast....just for contrast!

Block booking used to require exhibitors to buy a whole season of product from a major studio so they could get the "A pictures" featuring the studio's big contract stars who brought in the customers. Thus, they offloaded all the financial risk of production to the theater owners & ensured that there was no way for new studios to get their movies screened. Producers with the majors could literally afford to take creative risks or even leave the artists alone to do their job.

There came a point when Disney realised he had to get into distribution himself or give up.


"The fantasy, for me, is to find a youngish billionaire with some pull who loves old cartoons, is willing to drop money to start a good independent cartoon studio and distributor, with nothing the best people who know what they're doing, simultaneously starting a school teaching the stuff they leave out at Cal-Arts, and NOT sell either operation out down the road to uncaring bean counters."

Can this billionaire also be a gorgeous nymphomaniac?

lastangelman said...

pappy d said...Can this billionaire also be a gorgeous nymphomaniac?

Ha, Ha! You've been watching John & Katie's Close, But No Cigar video for Weird Al Yankovic in constant rotation on your iTouch, no (Julie ...[is]a world famous billionaire bikini supermodel astrophysicist)? Seriously ... NO! We'd never get any work done. Save that for another fantasy. Besides, one of her earlobes is way too big!

Deniseletter said...

This post worth a reread, it has many interesting points,this time I can comment one of them:
Everywere is not the same,I believed the opposite,animator was number 1 and illustrador number 2.But after all you clear it!!.Where I live there just a lot of job demands are for flash animators and web designers and developers and something is amazing for me,that some didn't know the meaning of the word illustrator,is changed for painter or graphic designer.

Iritscen said...

At the risk of depressing everybody further, what about the possibility that, post-WWII, people gradually lost the ability to enjoy carefree cartoons? Would a modern audience enjoy a Daffy Duck short before the newest blockbuster? Or might we be too jaded today to enjoy something that doesn't use modern sarcasm or that isn't self-consciously self-referential? Might we be embarrassed at something so brightly colored?

Before that, cartoons were a joyous novelty, but now there's something seen as being wrong with you if you want to watch them and you're an adult. Outside the niches of self-support that geeks form, and the allowances made for nostalgic indulgences, comedic cartoons really aren't considered acceptable viewing for anyone over 12.

It's probably significant that cartoons used to be shown in the theater, so, while adults would enjoy them, they were also being placed in front of them -- but today, you have to seek out cartoons by turning to a cartoon channel or buying a cartoon DVD; is it possible that adults were never comfortable with actively seeking out cartoons, and thus that cartoon-makers lost their grown-up audience when they lost the captive "silver screen" demographic? (And, as I asked at the beginning, would people be too jaded today to even enjoy theatrical shorts if they made a return?)

Deprived of that audience, today's cartoons either talk down to the kids they are entirely aimed at, or they are full of self-important super-powered drama coupled with teenage angst, for the teenagers they are entirely aimed at.

So, depending on your perspective, the problem either lies with the "grown-up complex" that causes society to view with suspicion any adult who likes cartoons, or on the makers of cartoons for not using the medium to tell truly serious stories aimed at adults, addressing the issues of our modern world.

Roberto González said...

Tex created Droopy, the Wolf, Screwball Squirrel, George and Junior and all of them have more personality than most of the recent characters in animated features. Yes, I know George and Junior were a stereotypical duo based on "Of Mice and Men", but still.

Rick Roberts said...

What I noticed Tex did was take a human trait then put it in one of his stock of character designs. The only one he didn't do this to was Droopy.

Roberto González said...

I think I should elaborate a little more on my previous post.

I'd generally agree that Tex was more concerned about the gags than he was about character. But the characters did show some personality, even though that wasn't what carried the cartoon.

Like John Canemaker says in this book he showed hints of personality traits like when he didn't choose Droopy for the role of Spike's tormentor in Rock-A-Bye Bear, cause that would have been out of character for him.

I perfectly believe that Tex could create Bugs Bunny in A Wild Hare, even though he didn't manage to create another character that worked for the general audiences. Maybe Screwball Squirrel would have been more popular than Bugs if that character had been created first. Also, what helped Bugs Bunny and most Looney Tunes is that there were different people working in the characters and there are lots of cartoons featuring them. There is a lot less Droopy cartoons than Bugs Bunny cartoons. Warner Bros was more character driven, so probably the personalities of Droopy and the Wolf would have been more developed by the other directors if he had created them while working in Warner.

Also characters like Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse or Woody Woodpecker don't have very distinct personalites and they are all more popular than Droopy. How do you explain that?

Yep, the personality of Droopy does change a little bit from one cartoon to another. He seems even more naive than usual in Out-Foxed, and he didn't do much in cartoons like Chump Champ, but I'd generally agree with Rick Robert's definition of the character.

a n t s said...
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by Bit said...

IMHO I would venture to say that the entire motion picture entertainment spectrum, including cartoons, was drastically altered by the introduction of TV in the 40s. By the 50s TV had basically up-ended Hollywood and America had completely changed its entertainment consumption habits. Just re-read the chapter on Comics in Marshall McLuhan's The Medium Is The Message. BTW in the mid-50s newspaper comics suffered the same fate as cartoons and also became stale and useless.

I believe there is room for animation and funny and great cartoons, but my money is on the Internet, not Hollywood. The trick is finding ways to finance the good stuff.

mike.freed said...

These are all excellent points in this debate and I think the cartoon medium that has suffered the most is the gag cartoon. It's absolute junk in the newspapers, nobody has filled the void left by Charles Schultz, Bill Watterson and Gary Larson.

pauljs75 said...

The funny thing is, the principles developing in about a decade part strongly parallels contemporary CGI and 3D modeling and animation. And like the older cartoon production, it too is running into the pitfalls of being popular. There is a lot of money and talent involved in modern productions which is misguided or wasted. I've seen some recent 3D movies or made-for-TV (or more likely made-for-DVD, but put on TV for sake of not having reruns) CGI animation that is gawd-awful and poorly scripted. Some things they do is just because they can, to the point of being cliche, not because it does much to enhance the animation or do something unique and funny. In such cases, it makes me half-embarrased that it's a field I want to try getting into. Even in the relatively new fields related to digital media and production, there's a hell of a lot that can be learned from the history of "old-school" animation. I think it would be wise if there were a class or two on this kind of stuff, even if all the studens ever plan on doing is working with is 3D/CGI.

Unlimited 99 said...

a friend told me to go back through your old post for this one. glad I did. I have a few ex-disney teachers and it's maddening! We learn the theory of animation instead of the practice of animation. I watch as stiff disneyesque work is praised versus the greater more inventive cartoony works. I don't care if the bears head is supposed to have 3 ruffles or four, who cares if he moves like a real bear, tell me how funny this animation flows across the screen! "sigh" why did I go to school to have what comes naturally beaten out of me and replaced for what is...efficient? I try to get people to understand these same points you have brought up, but most are too mesmerized by the almighty disney and dollar to care about truly what animation and cartoons are about and suffering from. I LOVE Tex Avery, he is my idol, and you are a prophet!

J C Roberts said...

That really sums up the history of where the cartoon industry has been, but I wonder where it's yet to go. Not to spread the pessimism, but is there even a possible outlet for quality, inventive cartoons in the "mainstream business" anymore.

This is a vastly different era in terms of the entertaiment industry. People will always want entertainment, and there will always be people with the gift of being able to provide it, but the lessons learned and trends and practices on the business side has dug such deep roots that it's strangling itself to death. The purse strings will always be held by business minds, and they will always follow success formulas until their wells run dry, while hoping that before that time comes a new bandwagon will be lined up to hop on. Every rare now and then a wild horse will run through a given field and somehow get through their careful screening process and start up one of those bandwagons, only to be taken out and shot for being a stubborn, uncontrollable wild horse (or perhaps a wild "Mr" Horse). "Thanks for the new revenue stream and influential style, but that'll be just about enough original ideas out of you! We'll just milk this for another ten years" So then, should creators go directly to their audience online?

Sure, the internet and people using Flash or one of the many flavors of Toon Boom could flood the market with their productions on all levels of the quality scale, but does anyone have the time to find all the things they would enjoy in a sea of millions all saying "Look! Me too!"?

It's never been easier to get artistic creations into the hands of anyone who might want it, but there's no filter, and it's never been harder to get noticed when everyone with a connected computer can compete in the same playing field.

My blog has all the marketing muscle of putting fliers on the windshields of every car in a junk yard, I could pour tons of time and effort into it, but I won't make a dime, and the only people following it so far are 2 people I already know and have a relationship with. That's pretty compartmentalized for a success formula. Everybody could also draw a funny cartoon, put it in a bottle, and send it off on the ocean. Chances are as many people will see that as the web clip.

And don't even bring up the idea of making a living off it. "Hey! I just got 35 cents for hosting that banner ad! I can finally pull the trigger on buying that gumball I've had my eye on!" There's no new revenue streams opening up on the internet that aren't the same ones already mentioned above, and that brings us back to dough (for them, no "dough pay me"). Basically, that makes the web a good place to show your work to people as long as you can pull off the "labor of love" thing inyour spare time. I hate to burst any bubbles, but no one is going to keep anybody afloat making web cartoons. Please feel free to prove me wrong on that one, though, and good luck doing it.

This post expertly breaks down how the animation industry fell into a hole, but I wish it was possible to write as accuate a one about how we could pull it back out. It's just a different landscape now. The death of the theatrical short, the rise and fall and rinse and repeat of the TV grind mill, the bottom line bean counters afraid to rock any boat that's still leaking money.

As far as coming up with star characters, the business minds have got that one sewn up tight as well. Could you imaging trying to get corporate approval for a character that would bury another character alive, then shuffle off singing a little song about it just for the sake of "heckling that character"? To this day people still loves Bugs Bunny, but you'd never be able to get him off the ground today.

It looks like it's the labor of love route for me...