Friday, February 06, 2009

Pete Emslie's Theory Of Design VS Humor

Cute generic Disney design VS cute specific Jones design

This Disney style is the culmination of their search for perfect mathematical design balance, inoffensive cuteness and lack of specificity. Once they found this balance, they stuck with it until it eventually deteriorated with the passage of time.
These Snow White Deer are early attempts in the search - not quite there yet.

Pete sent me this email and his theory: (I added the headings)

Hi John,

I have a theory. (See, not only Eddie has them.) The more I read of your thoughts on "Specific" vs. "Generic" characters and the examples you use to illustrate each type, it seems like there's a pattern developing here. Most of the characters that you seem to respond to more viscerally as "Specific" types in terms of both personality and visual design, also tend to be rather ungainly in their design (with some notable exceptions.)

For instance, you love the work of print cartoonists like Milt Gross, Basil Wolverton and Don Martin for their skewering of human types and ability to make truly funny drawings. You've also recently been lauding, as you so aptly described it, the "Rat Pack" brand of humour that you see in "BC" and "The Wizard of Id", where there's less politeness and a more rugged, freewheeling approach to being funny.

Yet one thing that all of these print cartoonists seem to have in common is a flair for creating humour out of designs that are actually rather ungainly. Even your favourite animated cartoon character,"Popeye", who of course originated in the newspaper funnies, has an unusual appeal in that he looks like he's been Frankensteined out of various spare parts!

Now don't misunderstand what I'm saying here, as I'm not suggesting that any of these designs are amateurish or unappealing, but I do find that there is a spontaneity and visual clunkiness to them that maybe allows better for that broader type of belly-laugh humour that you enjoy.

I guess I kind of find it ironic in that, for all of your high regard for good solid construction in animation design, it is really these characters that don't seem to slavishly follow those rules that really get a gut response from you. I'm actually wondering if all of the animated film characters that you praise for having good solid construction, yet also tend to dismiss as being "Generic" (likely because of their solid construction whether you realize it or not,) are maybe fighting a losing battle in trying to appeal to the John K sensibilities.

Even the Warners characters that, on the surface may seem to disprove my theory, perhaps appeal to you because of the rather ungainly poses and expressions they take which requires the cartoonist to radically cheat the rules of construction to pull off effectively. Am I making sense? Maybe not, but read on...

You see, the way I see it is that print cartoonists have a huge advantage generally over those in the animation biz, in that they don't have to be nearly so accountable with their drawings. You can read a comic strip like "BC" or anything Milt Gross drew and not have to see whether or not all of the details are matching up perfectly from panel to panel. Nobody cares how Wiley's face goes from a front view to a profile or whether he's got exactly the same number of facial hairs on his ugly mug as he turns. The mind's eye fills in the missing movement and doesn't notice any inconsistencies like that. Because of this freedom from absolute consistency of design, print cartoonists can be extremely spontaneous in their drawings, potentially creating wilder, broader character personalities and actions if they so choose to.

This struck me the other day when a friend had lent me the latest book of political caricatures by British cartoonist, Gerald Scarfe. As I was looking through it and admiring his audacity, it also occurred to me that one probably couldn't successfully translate that type of drawing to consistently drawn animated characters. I'm not even referring to just the sheer amount of pen strokes (which would be impossible), but rather, the overall approach that Scarfe takes in his design. Frankly, I'm not so sure that Don Martin or Johnny Hart would fare much better either.

As you know, I happen to also share your admiration for Ed Benedict's designs for the earlier Hanna-Barbera characters. Yet I wonder if it's precisely because of the limited animation and more graphic, shape-based designs that allowed the animators to do cartoons that maybe had more in common with the work of print cartoonists than their predecessors in the theatrical animated shorts. Because of all of the visual cheats they could get away with by not having to adhere to the rules of full animation, I suspect this also allowed the H-B cartoonists to pull off broader humour in their drawings, as well as create what you yourself seem to consider more "Specific" visual designs and personality types.

I must admit, even in my own work, I was happier doing my own natural style of cartooning prior to when I first went to work for Disney. For all of the training and honing my craft through working for Disney, I suspect that something was also sacrificed in the bargain. For when I look back at the stuff I used to do in "The Ottawa Citizen" circa 1978 to 1984, there was a gutsier, more spontaneous quality to my cartooning, most likely due to the lesser emphasis on polished construction that I seem to strive for in my post-Disney efforts. The resulting images were, in my opinion, funnier because of their rawness and spontaneity. Heck, I might even post some up on my blog just so people can see how I started out.

Anyway, just some food for thought there for you. You can shoot down my theory now, ya' rascal.... :)

Your pal, PeteDisney's Pretend Development Department
For some reason Disney wastes a lot of time "developing" disproportioned or "ungainly" versions of all their characters before they finally decide to go with what everybody knew they wanted in the first place. Something with even proportions, no distinguishing characteristics and simple base cuteness and design balance.

Why don't they just start on day 1 with this design? It was inevitable that it's what they would end up with.
Same design as Pinocchio with less cartoony proportions - meaning more generic. Time passes at Disney - they still use the same constructions, but they get less and less exaggerated or fun
by the 80s, they lose even the ability to do the construction so have to give up imitating themselves in favor of imitating Filmation Saturday Morning cartoons

Hi Pete

very clever thoughts...

I have been wanting to do a post on this very thing for the longest time: the difference between perfectly balanced mathematical design (like Bambi) VS slightly awkward out of balance, more natural design - like Clampett. Friz on the other hand is afraid of contrasts in his work, so evens everything out like Disney - except without the gloss.

generic Sylvester with even proportions
vs caricatured more specific variations of Sylvester's design plan:

specific variations of the general Sylvester design plan

generic Daffy Duck proportions on model sheet VS
specific controlled expressions and proportions in a Clampett cartoon

Both approaches share the same fundamental knowledge and skills, but the result I like better is the one that takes nature into consideration. Nature has an ideal plan for everything, but no part in nature fits the plan perfectly and that's what makes things interesting. The variety and deviations from the perfect plan.

Disney has no variety or humanity. It aims for a Platonic ideal of attainable perfection and the result is stagnation. It's all just a simple formula that can never make a funny face or stand out from the purely ordinary. It all has to obey their limited design and motion rules. Disney artists are entirely too afraid (and unimaginative) to do anything nearly as interesting as what surrounds them in real life. Great cartoonists draw from real life and then bend what they observe with unafraid bold imagination.

Disney cartoons are like Christian Rock. Give me the real thing, not watered down flowery mush..
Real live humans are constructed, but they have much more variety, caricature, natural imbalance and pliability than any Disney character - so there I disagree with you. You don't have to draw flat to draw interesting as you seem to infer is my theory. Look at your favorite old time stars (and mine) and how interesting and unbalanced they are. What is remotely polite about Frank Sinatra? He is much more like Clampett than Disney.

As a caricaturist yourself, I would think that you especially would be repulsed by anything generic and evenly proportioned or middle of the road.

Your pal,


Pete afterthought:

By the way, have you noticed how the rap fans are just as rabid as the anime fans in their belief that those who don't like it just haven't taken the time to truly understand it?

Me: Yes

that's why I believe we live in a very conservative age, where no one can make personal art anymore; they can only blindly copy trends that degrade from generation to generation.

today's art reminds me of Byzantine religious mosaics or Egyptian Hieroglyphs (only less skilled) that remained almost stagnant for hundreds and thousands of years because personal invention was considered blasphemous.

The Dark Ages were extremely conservative times, and I lament that we are now beginning to repeat them as our recently departed hunger for skill, knowledge, curiosity and invention is being replaced by ignorance, amateurism, fear and imitation.
Anime from 1,000 years ago and more...
" The development of the style of Byzantine Art was developed during the Fifth and Sixth centuries. From that time to the time the of the invasion by the Turks, very little change occured in the style. "Byzantine art displayed the same constancy: in the fifth and sixth centuries, it developed a formal expression that was manifested in the thousands of works of art that came to be regarded as sacred and immutable" (Marceau, Jo 1997, pg 136)..."

Because Egyptian art followed such strict rules of representation, the style of it changed very little over the more than 3,000-year history of Egyptian art. Originality was not the motivating force in Egyptian artwork, rather following a strict rule of law and regulations was prized. The best artists were those who could copy the original most accurately....

Of course we'd have to find something more primitive than Byzantine Art for a visual equivalent to Rap - maybe something more along the lines of elephant paintings.


Unlimited 99 said...

Just yesterday I was telling another student to come to your blog and read through the archives and look at what you have posted. (she's going through a block and withdrawal due to teachers wanting a very conservative, disney-esque, "perfectly" proportionate approach to there work for their final portfolios) She frowned and said that you always harped on disney, to which a friend and myself replied "we'll disney isn't contributing anything to the evolution of the medium, they're trying to keep it stagnant and safe." stagnant & safe. hmmm.

Ungainly design is life. yes. you can find a sense of order in all construction but the things that really stick out and stay with us are those "ungainly" designs that challenge what we perceive as "perfection" (I don't know if this is making much sense)

who says that animators and animation CAN'T be "extremely spontaneous in their drawings, potentially creating wilder, broader character personalities and actions if they so choose to."
people are bored with most contemporary animation because it is NOT these things. (with a few exceptions) It seems that it's a problem of people being in that "comfort zone" where things are safe and acceptable and don't go against the grain. We have a homogenized sense of what it is not only to be an animator, but what animation is supposed to be. It's sad, disturbing, and (if I let such things get me down)a bit of a bummer.

Jonathan Harris said...

I noticed that correlation between anime and rap fans too.

Of course you're probably now going to get a bunch of rabid anime fans defending their medium, leading to another derailment of your blog for a few entries. Oh well, this was a great post!

JohnK said...

>>(she's going through a block and withdrawal due to teachers wanting a very conservative, disney-esque, "perfectly" proportionate approach to there work for their final portfolios<

Someone should tell her Teacher that no one at Disney has had that approach in 50 years

Diana Rodríguez said...

Hi John, i would like to write you an email for present you a shortfilm my studio is working on.

thanks a lot!


Jake Thomas said...

Anime, Disney, and Saturday morning cartoons piss me off.
This video makes fun of anime with Popeye. Scientists should splice Bald eagle DNA so that they look more like Popeye, that way the U.S. national bird could be Popeye.

Alexandre G. Marcati said...

Hi, John!
Have you ever read "The Grotesque in Art and Literature" by Wolfgang Kayser?
I think the authour's ideas about the grotesque and the 'specific' relate very much with the things you say about specific appeal and what lacks in Disney. One of your posts about ugliness/appeal, where you posted some Basil Wolverton characters specially relates to the book. I think you should read it if you haven't yet.

Chris_Garrison said...

(by the way, there's a little confusion in this post between "flat," meaning, "2D, can't turn in space," and "flat," meaning, "bland." Maybe we should just avoid the word "flat.")

I think that by ungainly, Pete just means cartoony, or exaggerated, or caricaturish. Bongo is boring as hell, because he's so bland. But if you gave him a very skinny neck and a really big nose, he'd start looking funny, and he'd be enjoyable to look at. Then John would start liking him.

Pete's also talking about how constructed characters are, which seems to me like a whole 'nother point, not really related to cartooniness. Pete's saying, "You say you like construction, but you really like funny comics that aren't constructed." Here's what I think, and what I imagine John and Pete would both agree on:

We have to first LEARN construction, so that we'll have the competence to make our characters solid and draw them from all angles. THEN, having gained that ability, we need to sometimes throw some of the construction out the window, to create the funniest drawings possible.

bluesmokebloke said...

I've noticed this appeal/off-balance trend too, and find it interesting. In many disciplines you need to learn the rules before breaking them.

Not to defend anime, but I think it's somewhat a cultural thing, and I can respect certain elements of the genre. Sometimes I don't understand it, in much the same way my Western ear can't understand Japanese koto music.

J Hobart B said...

You know, I realize this is straying from the topic at hand and I don't mean to beat a dead horse (I was even among those chiming in at the time to say let's get back to talking cartoons), but I was thinking again about the whole rap debate that happened here recently and I have a new theory I'd like to run by you...

I think part of what made the rap fans so upset is that it seemed like you were telling them not to like what they like. While it was clear from your comments that YOU certainly don't like rap, I would posit that maybe your point wasn't that people shouldn't enjoy modern music, but just that it was OBJECTIVELY inferior.

I happen to agree with you that pop culture as a whole has been on the decline for the past 60 years or so. That doesn't mean that I don't enjoy a lot of the movies and music that have come out in that time, just that I can appreciate the fact that there is less raw talent on display now, and more simple marketing savvy.

I enjoy some rap music as something I can put it on and listen to and get some kicks. But it certainly isn't of the same technical caliber as the best music of the 40s. It doesn't mean you can't like it. It's just, from an objective standpoint, not as good.

I also think you're right that we've become passive consumers in this respect, and in having stopped demanding that our entertainers be exceptional, we have decreased the signal-to-noise ratio in our culture as a whole.

To put it another way - You may like jelly beans and marshmallow Peeps, and there's nothing wrong with that. But is that a meal? Shouldn't you also be eating real food?

Trevor Thompson said...

...British cartoonist, Gerald Scarfe. As I was looking through it and admiring his audacity, it also occurred to me that one probably couldn't successfully translate that type of drawing to consistently drawn animated characters.

Not so. I guess you've never seen 'Pink Floyd The Wall'. All the animation was directed and designed by Gerry. This is quite different from 'Hercules', which hired him to design the characters, only to have them 'Disney-fied' in the manner in which John describes.

It also went back and fourth from very solid animation, to very wild and crazy animation, closer to his style.

Here are some examples of songs from the album that he animated:

What Shall We Do Now?

Goodbye Blue Sky

The Trial

- trevor.

Ted said...

Criticizing Byzantine icons for sameness is similar in some ways to criticizing a letter for sameness; the point for many was a fairly unified image with a set meaning, understandable by any of the subjects of the church. Even then, the icons have far more variation and artistic merit than the most common art from the time, coinage, which maintained types but degraded in quality of style from the reform of the coinage in the late 7th/early 8th century until the noble death of Constantine XI in the 15th century when the Turks finally took Constantinople for good.

Additionally, Byzantine mosaics are not as same-y as your examples imply:

Also, hieroglyphs are one of the ancient Egyptian alphabets; you mean another term (unless you're criticizing their limited font choices).

Ryan said...

I remember it being a minor revelation to me in a high school art class when I was drawing a friend of mine and the space between his eyes was wider than the width of his eyes, when the book said it was supposed to be the same.

Rick Roberts said...

I love when you two guys talk ! :)

I think Pete is right about you John. You do steer towards the generally less constructed designs with exception of Jones and Clampett.

Also I know you don't want the anime and rap thing again but believe or not they had a golden age like cartoons, which are on the same level of both them. The problem I have with both, just like cartoons, there best days are long gone. Also on the subject of anime, there is one good modern day director that infuriates me Shinichirō Watanabe. He comes up with interesting stories and characters, humorous situations, and yet he always makes the lead characters of his shows nothing more then unlikeable, uncharasmatic, 'tude jerks (ex. Spike Speigel, Mugen, and Jin). Basically, he puts humor in his art and yet keeps at arms length. One last thing, despite what the fanboys say, alot of anime is for teenagers, not for adults. Okay, that's enough of that.

JohnK said...

>>I would posit that maybe your point wasn't that people shouldn't enjoy modern music, but just that it was OBJECTIVELY inferior.<<

I'd swear I said that. I agree anyway.

Alberto said...

Nice said Hobart, Hip Hop is like toy music, what is bad is that there are not so many real music these days.

Iritscen said...

Be careful of generalizations, guys. Animé has changed styles with each decade, and there are always individual shows with individual styles within each decade as well.

Don't act as if animé is a genre when it's an industry with a range of topics and styles.

And most importantly, don't judge a thing by its fans (the most vocal of whom are kids who shouldn't be expected to be good spokespersons for any cause whatsoever); judge it for yourselves, and recognize that watching one episode of something or a couple movies and forming a judgment on the whole industry is very akin to the story of the blind men and the elephant.

Finally, to get off that topic: Ted already mostly made my point, but how can you criticize religious icons for lacking variation? They weren't art, if by "art" we mean "individual expression for expression's sake", which is my usual definition. One could argue that the Byzantine and Egyptian images were not in need of variation because they were perfect — a set of proportions which had gradually been refined so as to perfectly convey what those cultures wanted to convey (namely, morose long-faced people, and dignified and 2D people who were convenient for spreading out along a surface such as a wall). They weren't making art and so they didn't need to be concerned about their work being "stale".

Trevor Thompson said...

PS: At least 2% of anime is good.... with proof!

I'm just kidding, of course. All anime sucks.

Rick Roberts said...


I disagree entirely. Art is simply making a statement no matter what it is. Those examples John put up are art and it is stale art, it shouldn't be immune from negative criticism just because the creators had no intention to host those pieces in a mueseum.

Rick Roberts said...

Trevor: I just looked up Gerald Scarfe's work for Hercules all I can say is what a shame that those beautiful designs got watered down so much.

Jack said...

Like I said earlier, it looks like you're just criticizing Disney for being more succesful than Warner Bros while having a different outlook on life and cartooning. Why? It opened the door to a much bigger audience of animation and made it a much more recognized artform.

"By the way, have you noticed how the rap fans are just as rabid as the anime fans in their belief that those who don't like it just haven't taken the time to truly understand it?"

You know what's funny John, is that you're in this same group. You keep talking about what makes good cartoons and how anyone who disagrees just doesn't understand, yet what's selling right now is the opposite of everything you talk about.

Anonymous said...

I would worry about slipping into dark ages artistically, but most trends move through such vigorous cycles it's hard to tell (especially to younger folks) what is rehashed and what is original. This is where anime messes up, I think, because you know exactly what its influences are.

I have the same problem with rap, indie rock, and animated films - they're all influenced by the superficial aspects of previous, recent successes.

Mattieshoe said...

Japanese animation has done some good stuff.

Maybe it's conservative and maybe it's redundant sometimes, but the majority of it at least stays grounded in what people actually WANT to see. It also stays skillfully and appealingly (in my opinion) drawn.

It's a conservatism that still believes is basic skills and entertainment value, unlike our awful "Adult Swim" conservativeness that somehow gets mistaken for being "Rebellious"

Owen said...

Haha, the sad part is, anime' has been more creative than the cartoons around these days......

JohnK said...

I have to agree with that. It's a more honest and imaginative staleness.

Rick Roberts said...

Jack: Your an ignoramous. What sells is what must be good ? BTW, were is your wonderful artwork ?

Elana Pritchard said...

If you had to pinpoint one main cause of what's making cartoons so bland and lifeless today, what would you say it was?

I would say corporate culture but I want to know what you think.

kalena said...

I absolutely love when you post non-animation images, like the Byzantine ones today, the variety of interesting food images awhile ago, and the ones of international people in costume. It makes me want to make a caricature out of everything.


Severin said...

For the anime fans:

Not too many people know about Tezuka's short films, while just about everyone is familiar with Astro Boy. Osamu Tezuka loved to play and experiment with animation, but he did so using the money his studio brought in from making cheap cartoons. It was the cheap cartoons that went on to shape the Japanese animation industry, of course, but as you can see the Japanese were well aware how to make a good cartoon. And they still do! It's the glut of cheap animation that makes the small gems possible.

The American animation industry subsides on a few high-budget productions. If one of those productions fail then the company is out tens or millions of dollars (as has been stated on this blog before, I believe, though I could be mistaken), so companies can only afford to make bland, conservative entertainment to ensure they make back their millions.

Japanese animation (and comics) features products ranging from top to bottom in budget and quality, and you can find films to appeal to any audience, no matter how niche. If anyone is stale and conservative, it's companies like ADV and Tokyopop, who repeat the same mistakes of companies in the past by appealing to their largest single demographic (these days it's 14-year-old girls), and neglecting the rest of the market.

Everyone in Japan watches or reads cartoons, and that has led to an industry too broad and diverse to make base generalizations off of.

That said, I love anime parodies!

Cheezy WEAPON said...

Actually (and I bet this is going to be said before), but having symmetrical and generic designs are made because they're the most 'familiar'. It's what conservatism is all about; not being 'weird' and 'scary'.

And this whole thing can even go further into the very nature of symmetry/asymmetry on humans. Cute and Generic designs are 'perfect'. They don't need to be 'changed'. But they have one flaw: They are boring. Since it's so perfect, it doesn't need anything else, and we move on.

Asymmetric designs are interesting because they gather attention. They also automatically have character because they are different. On a basic level, we want to 'fix' them. Some people take this as being 'wrong' and 'weird' (like one eye being larger than the other).

C'mon folks, this is human nature. And sorry for the blatant abuse of quotation marks..

Pete Emslie said...

Chris Garrison said: "We have to first LEARN construction, so that we'll have the competence to make our characters solid and draw them from all angles. THEN, having gained that ability, we need to sometimes throw some of the construction out the window, to create the funniest drawings possible."

Yes! Chris has interpreted correctly what I was trying to say. The fact is, a pencil drawing can, at best, only suggest the illusion of 3-dimensional form when well executed. The best cartoon animators know how to take liberties with that, "throw some of the construction out the window" as Chris says, then reinvent that form in a plausible manner that actually may defy logic. This, to me, represents what drawn cartoon animation (and cartoon illustration) does best.

I used Ed Benedict's Hanna-Barbera designs as another example of what I mean because I think that their more shape-based stylization (not really "flat" per se, as there is an implied fullness of form) lends itself to a more direct visual statement, more akin to what a good print cartoonist can do with a single drawing. I'm also wondering if it is the absolutely perfect 3-dimensional form inherent in CGI animated design that ultimately leaves me less than satisfied. CGI is too literal for me, with little or no opportunity to cheat the eye like drawn animation does so effectively.

Incidentally, just for the record I am still a big fan of classic Disney character design and animation myself, even though I understand and respect John's more critical stance on it. I agree that the Warners characters are inherently funnier than Disney's, as they follow more in the footsteps of the madcap, anarchic humour of The Marx Brothers, whereas Disney characters are more Chaplinesque in their balance of gentle humour and pathos. When all is said and done, however, I remain enamored of the sheer elegance that I equate with the Disney cartoons, Walt Kelly's "Pogo", and the caricatures of Al Hirschfeld. What has been a longtime frustration for me with my own cartooning is to hit the right balance between that sort of visual elegance that I admire, and the type of honest (and brash) humour that I see in Warners cartoons, 60s/70s MAD Magazine, Playboy cartoons, etc. Fact is, it ain't easy!

Anonymous said...


When you do math, do you write "172/2607" as "1/2", just because it's an easier number to figure?

Curious, is all.

Trevor Thompson said...

You keep talking about what makes good cartoons and how anyone who disagrees just doesn't understand, yet what's selling right now is the opposite of everything you talk about.

The interesting thing is that there's an assumption in that statement which suggests that merely because something is selling than it is to be regarded as 'good'.

It's egotistical to think of the masses as a monolithic group of automatons who have the power to deem anything they snatch up as quality entertainment.

People don't always make the right decision so much as the one they don't have to think about. Hell, they elected Bush once, and the time before that, they were so dumb they missed the fact that he elected himself.

Fifty million people can be wrong, Jack.

- trevor.

Chris_Garrison said...

Pete -- Cool, I'm glad if I helped.

JohnK -- You should do a post on that Tezuka cartoon that Severin linked above, because that was the freakin' sh*t!

JohnK said...

A lot of it isn't "selling". And the sellers own the distribution and the networks, so no one else can get alternatives made and seen.

Also, a lot of what is "selling" is weaker and weaker imitations of stuff better people started.

My theory is (and I've proved it with deeds) that if you can get something better in front of the audience, they will watch it and everyone else will copy it.

The audience will almost always pick something more entertaining and sincere, if it is available.

In a terrible stifled age like ours, there are no alternatives. There's just amateurism and the public has to watch SOMETHING.

mike f. said...

Pete's analysis of American cultural degeneration is spot on, with an apt analogy to the Middle Ages.

He's way too polite, however. So allow me...

I'd say we're living in an era of not so much cultural decline, (that was the seventies) as one of utter and complete cultural collapse.

I don't really give a rat's ass if I ruffle any feathers or offend anybody by saying this - because it's true, and someone has to say it: The modern generation is dumb. They're dumber than we ever were, and they've practically elevated cultural illiteracy to an art form.

(There are exceptions, I know, and to those individuals I apologize. This isn't about you, it's about your friends.)

I never thought I'd see the day when I would have to spell out the names "Jolson" or "Sinatra" to an incredulous salesclerk in a music store, whose job is - whose JOB IS - to have a working knowledge of popular music.

...Or have the need to explain to a college-level salesperson in a bookstore (with nickel-sized plugs in his earlobes, a ring through his nose and tattoos on his neck) the difference between "fiction" and "nonfiction." Alien concepts, apparently.

...Or explain to young adults why proper titles in English are never alphabetized starting with T for "The". I've had all those experiences, and was profoundly depressed afterwards. After all, this is our future.

Until relatively recently, SAT scores had been nosediving for decades. Either they still are, or they've lowered the standards. It's a multiculturally diverse phenomenon, with no lines drawn for race or gender.

The baby boomers, the most destructive generation in history, are to blame, of course. It was the criminal failure of our generation to educate our kids.

And now they're breeding...

The Age of Stoopid is here with a vengeance. Steve Allen wrote a book about it years ago - with a deliberate malapropism for a title: "Dumbth". Mike Judge made a whole movie about it, called Idiocracy. It was meant to be a satire, but it practically plays like a documentary.

I'd be willing to bet there's a direct corollary between ignorant music and degenerative human stupidity. "Rap Makes You Stupid" is the working title of my upcoming thesis. Unfortunately, the people who will need to read it the most, can't.

(BTW, don't even bother going to my dashboard to leave me misspelled and grammatically incorrect hate mail. It's disabled. Nyahhh! :P)

Pete Emslie said...

Hi Mike,

I'm afraid that I can't take the credit for the history lesson. That was John talking - I'm not nearly so deep. My words stopped after the rap/anime analogy. :)

Rick Roberts said...

>>>I never thought I'd see the day when I would have to spell out the names "Jolson" or "Sinatra" to an incredulous salesclerk in a music store, whose job is - whose JOB IS - to have a working knowledge of popular music.<<<

I think a young person not knowing either artist is a great offense.

>>>...Or have the need to explain to a college-level salesperson in a bookstore (with nickel-sized plugs in his earlobes, a ring through his nose and tattoos on his neck) the difference between "fiction" and "nonfiction." Alien concepts, apparently.

...Or explain to young adults why proper titles in English are never alphabetized starting with T for "The". I've had all those experiences, and was profoundly depressed afterwards. After all, this is our future. <<<

Now there is no excuse for this.

Rick Roberts said...

Oops, I meant NOT an offense.

Jack said...

"I'd be willing to bet there's a direct corollary between ignorant music and degenerative human stupidity. "Rap Makes You Stupid" is the working title of my upcoming thesis. Unfortunately, the people who will need to read it the most, can't."

You know people who bash hip hop and say and say it's not valid music are like people who would say that the only art worth looking at is fine art and that cartoons are just wacky juvenile shows made for kids. You'd probably call that a generalizing statement, but so are your thoughts on hip hop.

Anonymous said...


After reading these 'critical' reviews of Dumbth, I decided to buy it, and encourage others to do the same.

I love the one that goes on and on about how it's not a good instruction manual for Critical Thinking. Or how about this:

"Allen is not emotionally intelligent"

Anonymous said...

This link seems fitting, for the second time:

Fertility and Intelligence

Jonathan Harris said...

Scooby Doo being popular: irrefutable, objective proof that the majority is perfectly capable of being wrong.

I made a dig at anime up there, but actually I admit that I do find it very interesting: I watch a fair bit, I certainly don't like all of it, but nonetheless I just find it intriguing to observe even when it's not actually enjoyable. It's difficult to explain. Alot of anime is completely obsessed with its own genre cliches (some series seem to deliberately build themselves around them; Lucky Star is a recent example), but you also get some bizarre experiments, some of which seem so personal that I can't imagine how they could have been conceived by commitee (for example, Serial Experiments Lain). These experiments aren't always successful (Lain is incredibly slow and difficult to watch) but it's fascinating the breadth it can achieve. I guess this is just a more elaborate way of putting what Severin said up there.

I do tend to enjoy manga (comics) more, since even though assistants are usually involved they tend to remain more personal and honest. You also don't have to put up with dodgy turnarounds and sloppy artworking. Alot of manga artists are actually great draftsmen (or at the very least they hire very talented assistants), but somehow they don't tend to show it in their characters, at least not the faces. For example, Kiyohiko Azuma's "Yotsuba&" has some really attractive environments, but his characters are very flat (he seems to have an assistant called Yotuba Sutazio, but I have no idea of the extent of his/her involvement). Junji Ito is one who's so good he's actually able to pull off his very conservative (and actually rather un-anime) character designs, keeping them reasonably solid and actually making them distinct through very subtley nuanced features. He's a rare breed, though. And in both of these cases, the skill is executed in a very clinical fashion, evidence of the "coldness" John pointed out in a post on anime a long time ago.

If some manga artists pushed the envelope more with character design and tried to break their "anti-acting" habits they could churn out some really fantastic stuff, I think.

Oh dear, did I just come out of the closet?

Constantine said...

"For some reason Disney wastes a lot of time "developing" disproportioned or "ungainly" versions of all their characters before they finally decide to go with what everybody knew they wanted in the first place."

I've noticed the same thing with Pixar's concept art - their concept art looks like some of the awesome artwork you've pointed out on your blog - great 60's design.

And yet, they have these formless, indistinct semi-realistic (and yet oh so unrealistic) imagery.

As for your comments on Byzantine art, two interesting points: it was the fall of the empire to the Turks that led to an influx of Greek Intelligentsia into Italy, bringing all their techniques that sparked the Renaissance when Western Europe just caught up with Greco-Roman art.

And secondly: the Byzantine Empire was for the last 300 years in a constant state of decline, so the fact that they produced any ornate or skilled art at all was amazing. COUNTERPOINT TO TODAY, where we live in the richest era of human history, and yet there seems to be a total lack of creativiety.

Actually, this is where I'm interested in your opinion on Post-Modernism and 'pastiche' - has human civilization excelled so far in science that creativity and art can't match the progress, causing creative recess and pale imitation (I mean, wtf is abstract expressionism!?)

Dragline said...

This might sound crazy, but Im pretty sure a lot more little kids watch cartoons than say, I don't know, 30 year old hipsters, and not so hip, middle aged men, and older. I mean, literally, little 2,3,4,5,6, 7 year olds. Not the most demanding group of art critics, you know. We're antique collectors, thats all.

JohnK said...

That's why grown up pseudo-hipsters shouldn't be making the cartoons.

People who like their cartoons funny, imaginative and silly should make them.

Kids like cartoon CHARACTERS, not semi-abstract graphic symbols.

Dragline said...

I couldn't agree with you more, John. My problem though with this ongoing discussion is that, aside from any of us inheriting a retarded amount of money, there is never going to be a cartoon studio worthy of the kind of art that we want. Shreck is here to stay. You know this, man. In the end we sound like a bunch of christians saying "Gay people shouldn't be gay!!". Kinda useless.

JohnK said...

Except that I put up lots of free lessons for people who like good cartoons, so that they can learn what is important and gain skills on their own. If enough talented people do it, things will inevitably get better and someone will get a project that needs and encourages real skills.

If no one can draw with skill and control, than even if there was a studio that was open to creativity and giving the artists some creative say, there wouldn't be the skill available to pull anything off.

We have the advantage of being able to easily access the best stuff ever done and to learn from it. School should be teaching it, but since they don't, you can get the knowledge yourselves.

Bitter Animator said...

Well I come to this discussion 45 posts late and most has already been said. Reading Mr. E's letter, it made a huge amount of sense to me given where I feel I'm at.

I look at cartoonists, like the ones Mr. K likes, and I love what they've got. They have such a sense of their own style. And even Mr. K's drawings - there's something uniquely special to him.

And I can't help feeling Mr. E is right. There's something at odds with what we're taught, especially when it comes to construction. Mr. K, haven't you said in the past that construction wasn't a strength in your own drawings?

Is it possible that's part of what allows you to make them so appealing?

And, as for the idea of having to learn construction, to be able to draw in all angles first, well, I'm not convinced for one reason - in learning that (I mean actually putting it into practise), it's possible to lose what made your drawings interesting to begin with. Seems to me, many great print cartoonists just kept on doing what they were doing until they got damn good at that one thing. That's what makes them unique.

But, as animators, we're taught to be chameleons. And it works. I've been hirable for 10 years, being able to adapt to shows, and I can't draw worth a damn on my own stuff because I have nothing of my own left. My godawful teenage sketches had more a sense of themselves than anything now.

Other animators around me who are far better artists are often great at that one style they learned first. But it's someone elses style. Because they were taught how to draw. It didn't evolve from themselves.

I'm not sure the same is true for many of the great print cartoonists.

JohnK said...

Everybody can benefit from learning to draw well technically. Only a handful of people have strong individual styles, and it becomes more evident, the better they can draw.

Rod Scribner, Jamie Hewlett, Jim Tyer, Walt Kelly, Hank Ketcham - the list goes on and on...lots of style, but great drawing backing it up.

The better you can draw, the easier it is to adapt to other animation styles.

Random thoughtless drawing mistakes don't add up to personal style.

Kali Fontecchio said...

Did you know that this post was your 1000th published post?

Martin Juneau said...

Hi everyone! I'm a active member of your blog and i want to thanksful for your big contribution of art and animation than anybody living could think of.

I guess you already talk in your previous posts but the reason and my theory why the classic cartoons is always funny, silly and can enthusiasm many peoples is the creators having the maturity and discipline to do. That's what i tough and feel for my own drawing skills. The more you being mature and disciplinate (sorry for my misunderstanding english) and the more you'll be better and can much controlled your art.

Glad to see you again!

Aaron said...

What's wrong with anime?! What's wrong with rap?! What's wrong with Byzantine art?! And what's so darn great about variety and individualism?!

sharprm said...

... or elephant dung.

Marty Fugate said...

I used to have nightmares about Walt Disney and Walt Disney World. No BS. Wake-up-screaming nightmares ... but that's another story.

Here is my own pitiful attempt to nail what John K is talking about.

Great cartooning isn't at the level of words. If it was words, it'd be a !@#$ story and not a cartoon. In other words, cartooning can't be reduced to a formula; it can't be chained to analytical control.

That's not to say principles don't matter. Everything John K talks about is true: construction, proportion, hierarchy, etc., etc...

But cartooning can't be reduced to these principles. There is an irreducible, irrational zen to what you do. And that, my friends, is the razor's edge a cartoonist has to walk.

Within them, every cartoonist has an inner Walt Disney. A chortling, smug, patronizing, manipulative inner fascist who wants to make the trains run on time and use sexual manipulation to make the Seven Dwarves wash themselves and make their beds.

I remember -- I think I was in 5th grade -- I drew something and looked at what I did and thought, that's amazing, that's alive ...

And I tried to copy it.

The copy was dead.

Somehow, you have to master the principles of your craft. (Otherwise, you're just another avant garde whiner pretending to be an "artist.")

At the same time, you have to allow for creative accident, messiness, unpredictability, randomness, and stuff that breaks the rules. You have to allow for something that doesn't fit your own formula. Otherwise, your work is dead. You have to tell your inner Disney to !@# off.

That's the razor's edge.

Eróstrato said...

Renaissance came from Bizantine art transplanted to Italy. Look at Giotto. It was the spiritual meaning of images, their light, what mattered. Could you say Andrey Rubliov worths nothing? Same with egiptian art. Sometimes, light must be preserved in simpler forms. Comparing those high spiritual forms with anime is ridiculous.

There's a reason cartoons died. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with art, simply because the public cannot appreciate that on the level of John K. That reason is: content. In contrast with cartoons, anime had new content, interesting ideas, character development, episodic presentation, even if it was foolish in their own way. Suddenly deeper or more twisted issues (or at least they were perceived as such) could arise on animation, even if, as art, they were absolutely inferior. Cartoons can't seem to find a solution for this problem, and stick to their formula of fairy tales, fart jokes, being funny, animals, etc.

Eróstrato said...

When science, art, literature, and philosophy are simply the manifestation of personality they are on a level where glorious and dazzling achievements are possible, which can make a man's name live for thousands of years. But above this level, far above, separated by an abyss, is the level where the highest things are achieved. These things are essentially anonymous. (Simone Weil)