Wednesday, December 19, 2007

animation trends 30, 40s, 50s, now

My favorite period of animation was from the 30s to the 50s. That's when the most creative and skilled cartoons were made.

Things changed quite a bit during those 30 years and in a general direction. I picked out a handful of cartoons that typify each period. They follow the major trends of the times.

(I left out New York cartoons for the time being, because for a while Fleischer defied the trends and went its own way.)

These are all west coast cartoons, done by the same basic groups of people using all the same principles only in different proportions and with different focuses.

Late 30s - Building the tools
The Worm Turns 1937
....animated by Ham Luske, Chuck Couch, Bernie Wolf, Al Eugster and Woolie Reitherman
(I don't know who did these scenes)

oh, here you go...This seems to be an amalgamation of Fleischer cartooniness with Disney timing and squash and stretch. It's not animation that advances the personalities. It's fun animation and exaggeration for the sake of itself wrapped around fairly mundane ideas.
I think it looks great and promises great advances to come.
But for some reason, the cartoony magic stuff soon disappeared from Disney's cartoons.


Magician Mickey 1937
Here's an acting sequence with Disney's top stars. Note that there isn't much acting. It's more like posing - using animation tricks and principles to make the poses read clearly.
Mickey stretches past his key poses to help accent them. The stretches aren't very extreme, they are just enough to draw your attention to the pose.

Disney was never very big on using facial expressions in the acting. They relied more on the gestures and poses to get the message across.
This animation is bouncy and rubbery seemingly for the sake of itself. Nothing in the gags or story points seem to be any more important than anything else. The animators are applying the same principles in the same proportions to almost every event in the cartoon.
The actual poses themselves are not that interesting, certainly not funny or specific, but the principles are strong.
I don't know why Disney never went past this stage of acting. Maybe he thought specific or funny expressions were ugly and not appealing, or maybe even cynical.
These cartoons are written and performed for juveniles and that makes it hard for me to be too entertained by them. As a cartoonist though, I can appreciate all the hard work and expertise in all these elaborate skills being applied to inane ideas.
It's odd that the animation at Disney's in the late 30s was so advanced yet what they applied it to was so outdated. The humor seems to come from the first silent films and 19th century circuses. Really simple slapstick and clownish antics presented with a sissypants veneer.
This is great stuff for young kids. When I watch this stuff I think "Imagine if Christians could do something professional." (If you watch TBN, you'll know what I mean.)
Disney seemed to need excuses in order to do what animation does naturally - like magic. This cartoon is written about magic, yet the actual magic tricks are not very impressive, especially since you know it's a cartoon and in cartoons anything is possible.

But only possible if you have the imagination and the permission to use it.

40s - Applying the tools to creativity

Action ending with acting:

It took Warner Bros. cartoons to find controlled ways to apply the new animation techniques. They combined early cartoon humor and magic with animation principles and their own advances in timing. On top of all that, they added something brand new - the idea of a personal point of view. And the audiences went nuts.

The Warner's directors had less money to spend on their cartoons than Disney and maybe that helped force them to have more restraint and control over their animation. Every action and every part of an action could not be equal.

Clampett focused the techniques around crazy stories, great acting, a richer assortment and variety of gags and swinging music (unlike the softer whitebread Disney scores). He gave all this new animation punctuation, but punctuation wrapped around the ideas, not just random punctuation.
Avery, Tashlin and Clampett also took the cartoons away from the juvenile Disney arena and aged them up to merely immature.
They mixed a kid-like optimism and sense of fun with adolescent misbehaviour, rebellion and sex.

These cartoons are much more human-friendly and that's part of why they have outlasted Disney's and are still very popular with all ages today.
More than anyone else, Clampett really upgraded the acting in cartoons. His characters have a much wider and more specific range of expressions than the Disney stable of characters.

For me, having strong characters who really portray human traits and foibles makes the magic and insanity of cartoons even more fantastic. It's like it's real and impossible at the same time. It's better than real.

Action ending with acting:

Clampett's wild action is not merely wild. It's focused. This scene of the butt battle is hilarious and super fast. It's incredible that you can tell what's happening. The faces and torsos move less than the wildly flailing buttocks and that makes us focus in on the asses.

The Warner's directors, especially Clampett, allowed their animators more stylistic individuality. Here Scribner animates with an approach that I've never seen anyone else do. If you slow frame through the clip try to follow how one drawing animates into the next.

50s - Hiding the tools


By the 50s, all the animators that had at one time done lively bouncy animation were now slowly abandoning it in favor of walking talking cartoons. Characters would walk from one scene to the next, say their lines, react and then go on to the next. Jones called it "Illustrated Radio" and he did it best.
There are at least 2 theories as to why the Warner's cartoons went in this direction. The history books explain that the budgets were cut. The directors themselves say they like these cartoons better than their 40s cartoons, so this less animated style is partly by choice.

This animation is expert and could only be done by artists who had learned the 30s and 40 principles. All through Chuck Jones' later cartoons, there are moments of fun animation, but it's usually squeezed in between Jones' own poses.


50s cartoons are more controlled than 30s cartoons and even more controlled than 40s cartoons, but it's a kind of repressive control that to me, really undermines the potential of animation.

A chase scene like this would have been animated with humor and noticeable invention in 1942. Here it's animated almost to hide the fact that it's animated. It's perfectly smooth and clever, but to an audience it's merely running and shooting.

The drawings in this and other 50s (esp. Jones) cartoons are also expert. They have tricky and clever structures, are organic, have a variety in the shapes and forms and are extremely carefully controlled. Yet they don't say anything noticeable. It's just enough cleverness to make the story point, but not much more. There is no joy of the magic of animation. No extreme pleasure of performance.
The UPA cartoons have even less animation and certainly no joy.

So far, all these cartoons use the same basket of skills and principles, but apply them in different proportions and to different purposes. You had to be highly skilled and talented to do any of these styles.

Now here's a style that you don't have to know anything to be able to do.
50 more years of progress
Action or Acting?

A few commenters observed the same things I just wrote about. Noteably Amir, Ardy and Roberto. Good eyes, fellas!

Oh and Will Finn just posted an in-depth analysis. Thanks Will!