Thursday, September 04, 2008

Canada's Cartoon Roots

I'm sorry, but I'm having trouble with Blogger. It keeps changing the sizes of my fonts and I haven't been able to fix it...

By 1970 (and even earlier) no one was making pure entertainment oriented animated cartoons anymore.


Animated cartoon shorts were dead. Only Disney kept making traditional animated features, but all the animators were old and tired by then and the animation reflected that.

The cartoons in the 70s that purported to be aimed at entertaining kids weren't animated. They were the worst kind of limited animation and the animation was being done in Asia. No one making these cartoons were doing it to have fun, let alone to be inventive.


The only "full animation" left was in animated commercials. They were "full" in the sense that they didn't stop moving, but the drawing style had completely degenerated into either kleenex box art style or clumsy combinations of 20s cartoon strips mixed with underground comics.

America had created, developed and made the greatest animated cartoons in history but that age was long gone.

For us young Canadian cartoonists, the future looked dreary. We had grown up watching the classics on TV: Looney Tunes, Popeye, Disney, Lantz and that's what most of us looked up to and wanted to emulate but there was no where to go to work on fun clever cartoons like that. Many of us emigrated to America to work in the depressing Saturday Morning cartoon factories.

Most young wanna-be Canadian animators wanted to do full animation. We hated Saturday morning cartoons and wanted something better, something that at least moved.

Sheridan College offered some hope that there was a market for this. They taught what they termed "traditional animation". What they meant was animation that moved smoothly with a lot of drawings. They also looked down upon Saturday Morning cartoons.

I personally think there is more to quality animation, full or otherwise than mere smooth motion. But in the 1970s and 1980s anyone who could animate smoothly, who knew what squash and stretch, overlapping action, weight and other old animation skills were, were extremely rare and admired by the rest of us.


The drawing on the cover of the Sheridan Animation program says it all: Quality animation is merely a lot of drawings per second. The quality or entertainment value of the drawings being moved were not serious considerations of the program.

A Cosmic Christmas 1977

The Canadian animation style first got wide notice with Nelvana's Cosmic Christmas. It had a lot of drawings in it, compared to what we were used to seeing in modern TV cartoons.

The story, personalities and concepts - as you can see from the images and plot description are completely corporate and conservative and preachy. Nothing different than Saturday Morning cartoons.

A small town is immersed in holiday season festivities. A small boy named Peter and Lucy, his pet goose, are suddenly confronted by three aliens (wise men) investigating the real meaning of Christmas. For 2,000 years the alien visitors have been searching the universe for the significance of a brilliant star. Peter realizes that it is the Star of Bethlehem, and he and Lucy lead the way. It's a difficult journey, but it changes the town as it (along with the travelers) discovers the meaning of Christmas. Young and old, rich and poor participate in the rediscovery of the meaning of Christmas, which the space visitors carry away with them.

The fact that it was actually animated at all was a real advance in TV cartoons.

Canadian animators, even the ones who loved classic cartoons and were inspired by them, unfortunately faced big handicaps. The classic cartoons were developed bit by bit, cartoon by cartoonists and animators. It took a decade or so of hundreds of animators to develop all the classic techniques by trial and error.

Canada had no such history. We just had the old cartoons on TV to watch and try to figure out in a week with no one to teach us.

Classic cartoon designs were designed to be functional and appealing. They were made to be animated. Cartoon construction was a lost science and art. We could only imitate it very superficially without understanding what was behind it.

So here's where I think the early Nelvana cartoons failed to live up to the promise of great animation. The designs are primitive and fight the very act of animating.

Characters are too stiff, have no construction and someone at the top is not allowing the animators to use lines of action and some of the classic tools that make cartoons work and look better.

Devil and Daniel Mouse 1978

Frank Nissen was the main designer on the early Nelvana cartoons and he had some unique quirks in his style that influenced the rest of Canadian animation for the next few decades.

Stiff designs, long rectangular eyes and extra lumps in places that interrupt the potential flow of the poses.

A strong trait in Canadian animation is that the characters stand up straight and stiff, and when they bend their limbs, they do so in jagged awkward ways. This is the Sheridan College style and goes against all the principles of classic Disney style, which the Sheridan teachers all claim to be their inspiration and goal.

Romie-0 and Julie-8 1979

Intergalactic Thanksgiving 1979

A space-traveler family- in a covered wagon spacecraft at that- land on the planet 'Laughalot' and encounter King Goochi. His subjects, who are entertained by the King all the time, don't do any work.

Prince Notfunnyenuf meets the daughter of the space travelers and takes her on a ride about the planet. They encounter the other inhabitants of the world who live below and do all of the work, the "bugs." They carry the valuable message back to the other people on Laughalot that you "can't keep takin' out if you don't put back!"

Easter fever 1980

Dan Haskett, an American who was to become one of the animators who brought back more looseness and classic construction and Disney principles to American animation in the 80s, worked for a short time at Nelvana. You can see him trying to recapture some of these classic qualities in these model sheets from "Easter Fever" (probably compromising them against management wishes). After he left, the looseness and construction and organicness left Canada's mainstream animation and it plugged on with its stiff signature design style.

Take Me Up To the Ball Game 1980

Baseball players from Earth try their luck against the Alien All-Star Intergalactic Champs. It's an interplanetary space jam!

This model sheet is almost constructed and definitely celebrates classic squash and stretch. I bet there was a big fight with management to get it to be this "cartoony".

The birth of Nelvana was celebrated in Canada as a hipster revolution. Young rebels going against the mainstream and pioneering a new edgy style where every old tired cliched story now happens in space.

Again - the fact that it used animation at all during that era attracted a lot of talented natural Canadian animators like Chuck Gammage and others. It was the only place where an animator could actually animate. Most animators I've known are pretty happy just to be animating. It's never been enough for me. I guess I gravitated more to design, acting, characters and story, which I think are even more important to cartoons than smooth movement - although I'm certainly glad to have great animation when I'm lucky enough to get it.

With an army of great talent, Nelvana got ambitious and decided to make a rebellious fully animated feature using worn Saturday Morning Cartoon ideas - Rock 'N' Roll and the future.

This film has some great animation, and some of the most awkward character designs and most patronizing ideas in history.

Drink a bag of milk while you are waiting for the next post...


Mattieshoe said...

Dan Haskett was very central to the Animation Renaissance that took place in the early to mid 90s.

was he essentially freelancer?

I've seen a couple of model sheets for Animaniacs done by him (very nice model sheets by the way) but he didn't do any other work for the show. was that what his entire career was in the 90s?

Ryan said...

Man, you don't answer half-assed. You use every part of the ass.

And fun coincidence with Arthur is that he is an anteater, and in the first book he had a wiener nose that they managed to rid him of before he was given a TV show.

Patrick Seery said...

I'm curious what your opinion is on the Peanuts cartoon that was running during the early to mid 80's. I can't remember too much of it, but I thought the expressions were pretty well done. But then again this is my first year of Animation and I want to state again it's been awhile since I've seen a Charlie Brown episode.

Ryan said...

Oh, I should also mention Untalkative Bunny, which might be my favourite Canadian cartoon. First season only. You can tell they let the animators have fun with the bunny's facial expressions, at the very least.

TP said...

It is frustrating when stuff with bad art is popular. It proves that art isn't the deciding factor with the general public. Aesthetics should be the number one concern when it comes to animation!

Sean Worsham said...

Rock n' Rule did have some good animation, but a lot of it looked rotoscoped. It had great techniques in my opinion (like the "calf-brain" imposed optics used for the creature at the end, some of the first integrations of vector cgi and the light patterns that happened when Mok was trying to influence the main characters.) But the REALLY good animation was few and far between. I liked the way Mok moved in it, especially his animation at the finale and his mouth movements, but I kept thinking how Bakshi was being imitated with overuse of the rotoscoping. Overall an ok film, but the music for the film was better than the film itself in my opinion.

The ideas were there but in the end it's a mixed-bag.

Maloni said...

A "bag" of milk? The kid looks as though she's waiting for her sugar frosted lumps!

Jake the Animator said...

I used to wonder why I hated limited animation from the 70's. People like Ed Benedict had to go to the wayside for even smaller budgets. That crazy 70's stuff is inspiring, though!

As is the (Israeli?) bag of milk.

:: smo :: said...

i looked at the special features on the rock and rule dvd and they had some earlier character designs not used in the final film...and they're actually really well constructed!!! i'm not sure why they settled on the ones they did, it's pretty frustrating to see those unused model sheets.

Kris said...

Rock & Rule's main character designs are a disaster. Their original character designs actually looked all right though--I'm not sure what retarded chimp picked the final character designs but that's really the main thing that baffled me about that movie.

I actually own a copy of it because I'm just fascinated by it and the fact that it got made at all. I guess it actually broke Nelvana's budget and they were never allowed to make anything even remotely daring ever again? It's one of those trainwreck movies I always took out in college to drunk-watch with friends.

Maloni said...

I liked the character designs for Rock and Rule. I learned to draw full lips by drawing Angel all the time and furrows around the mouth by drawing Mok.
I thought the designs were really hip and interesting. Especially for designers like myself who incorporate fashion and the fridge community into their work. Does everything have to look the same?

Anonymous said...

How about the Nelvana animated sequence in the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, widely (and correctly) considered the best part of the show? There is some good drawing in it, and I like the trippy backgrounds, but the designs for the human characters are RIDICULOUS! Looking at the images posted here, I see no realistic humans. I guess they never learned to draw them?

KNS said...

More or less off-topic, but my God I thought not only that the Nesbitt's Orange commercial was lost forever but that I was the only person in the world who remembered it. That song, and most of the animation, is permanently stuck in my head. Oddly enough, I only ever saw the commercial on the CBC so I assumed it was Canadian-made and almost suggested it as an example as a reply to one of the earlier Canadian animation posts (I'm American but grew up in a US/Canada border town so got the admittely fuzzy-reception best of both worlds.)

Anonymous said...

I was actually reading this while drinking a bag of milk and eating Raisin Bran. Do I get a prize?

There was an article in the Kitchener Record about stubby bottles:

"OTTAWA (Reuters) - A long-brewing bottle battle has been settled between Brick Brewing Co (BRB.TO) and Ontario's dominant beer retailer (The Beer Store), allowing Brick to keep selling its Red Cap brand in "stubby" short-neck bottles.
Brick said on Wednesday it reached a settlement just ahead of a September court date to hear its lawsuit over Brewers Retail Inc's objections to the use of the old-style bottles.
Details of the deal were not disclosed, although the small, Waterloo, Ontario-based brewer said it would be allowed to continue using stubbies, subject to certain conditions, along with standard, long-neck bottles."

Brick Brewery is a local brewery right here in Kitchener, and they sell Stubby bottles.

Incidentally I used to live 15 minutes away from the Labatt Brwery in London. Now I live like an hour away.

Chris_Garrison said...

I love getting all this history. When you're done with Canada, do another country! Italy or France or Hungary, maybe.

JohnK said...

Well I'm the wrong person to do that.

I'm a classic animation fan. The only reason I know about Canada, is because I watched it happen.

The further away you get from American entertainment animation, the less interested I am.

Zoran Taylor said...

"I thought the designs were really hip and interesting. Especially for designers like myself who incorporate fashion and the fridge community into their work."

John is well aware of the fridge community -that's where the bag of milk came from!!!

Chris Rank said...

Better Character designs for FAT people in that Intergalactic piece than in Wall E for sure...

way more interesting.

Sven Hoek said...

is that a bag of pussycow milk?

Who wants some milk???????

Whit said...

Didn't Nelvana waste a lot of time, effort and money on how the noses would look in "Rock and Rule?" They allegedly had rooms full of painted cels of characters with human noses and thousands of other painted cels with the same characters sporting dog noses. They ended up using a compromise - small scale canine-looking snouts on human characters, which didn't really matter in the long run.

JohnK said...

"They allegedly had rooms full of painted cels of characters with human noses and thousands of other painted cels with the same characters sporting dog noses."

Really? Wow, I would love to see those. That would make a great post all by itself.

Raff said...

For some reason I find something appealing in the coldness of the Rock and Rule designs.

Particularly Mok, with that gaunt stature and moulding-like face. I especially like the lips and teeth, which the animators seemed to have a field day with.

Chip Butty said...

Appropriately enough, there's a censored line on the R&R DVD where the furry "hero" calls someone "dick nose." Canadian self-reflection?

Man, R&R is such a contradictory mess. It purports to be animation for an older audience, but the characters are Disney archetypes with annoying Hanna-Barberra voices. They're animals, but the film goes out of it's way to give a sci-fi explanation as to WHY there are animal-people. And some of the animation and layouts ARE good, but everything is supposed to look ugly because it's THE FUTURE

SoleilSmile said...

Sorry Zoran, I meant to say "fringe".
I am the world's worst proof-reader

Rudy Tenebre, esteemed secretary. said...

I've got a soft spot for the late seventies/early eighties postapocalyptic, dystopic and urbane mileau, (being a kid then)... so I gotta love Rock and Rule. I remember buying the Marvel comics Super Special which printed stills from the film laid out in comicbook panel formats on glossy paper. Sweet! (Wished then they'd have done that with Wizards.)

The film was never given a wide release, so I was stuck with this comic. Eventually I think I saw a copy recorded from cable, and found it kinda schmaltzy, but a primer for your east village proto-punk whatnot, fer sure.

Timefishblue said...

Wow, Raff, it looks like Labyrinth really ripped off Rock and Rule.

Matt Durand said...

Rock & Rule is a great movie for kids to see when they're just starting to hit puberty, because it's basically the cartoon equivalent of a kid starting to hit puberty. It has a superficial, thoughtless "this is 'edgier' than kid stuff!!" quality while also looking and sounding incredibly awkward and clumsy without being aware of it. And when you look back on it a few years later, you only feel embarrassed and want to change the subject.

Emmett said...

You posted a clip from Laff-A-Lympics. Personally, as a shakey Hanna Barbera fan, the concept was alright, but the animation and writing could have been better.

But most of what is discussed here is depressing. I guess its because it more or less mirrors the horrid downfall of commercial animation in the 1980's. I wrote something of a response to this post on my own blog.

What depresses me even more is that I failed to recognize what was wrong with some of the animation I grew up on until after I turned 18 (thank god you and animation blogs came along).

Zoran Taylor said...

Uh, SoleilSmile.....I'm confused. not only are you apologizing for doing me a favour, i.e. giving me something funny to point out, thus making me look clever -and thank you, by the way- but you appear to also be apologizing for someone ELSE's mistake! Do you have two seperate blogger identities? "Malconi"?

I remember untalkative bunny. That show was pretty cool, but like most Canadian stuff, it wasn't built to last.

PCUnfunny said...

I wonder who thought head nodding was a good subsitute for actual acting in 70's cartoons. Any reaction at all would call for head nodding.

James Sutton said...

I love these huge blog entries that tell an extremely long and crazy story.

My parents tell me it goes in one ear and comes out of the afro, but they're morons.

I'm gonna have to watch some of this stuff someday.

Rudy Tenebre, esteemed secretary. said...

give it a few more years and the embarrassment fades too...

jbiziou said...

The Laugholympics reminded me of Animalympics, so I found it on Google video,, there was a lot of really great animation in there and some pretty funny writing at times..

Yeah mostly it was gag stuff but a lot of it was really well done, and they even had the cheesy Neon Xanadu special FX type stuff, heheh Check it out if you have a chance.

Maloni said...

Yes Zoran, I have two accounts. One for animation and other for my comic book. The personality is still the same though...I think.

I.D.R.C. said...

The birth of Nelvana was celebrated in Canada as a hipster revolution. Young rebels going against the mainstream and pioneering a new edgy style...

Isn't that the same hype they used for UPA? It's a brilliant strategy; they make it your if you don't enjoy it. You're too old-fashioned.

C. A. M. Thompson said...

Fascinating post. Romie-0 and Julie-8 designs aren't that bad.

I wonder why they didn't look at Bakshi as an example more when they made this stuff and try to put some brains into it. No adult or teenager wants to watch a 90 minute well animated non-funny Saturday morning cartoon, no matter what musicians are in it. Rock & Rule reminds me of stuff like Treasure Planet, Atlantis, and that Sci-fi Don Bluth movie that bombed ten years ago.

I.D.R.C. said...

your fault, I meant.

Red Stripe comes in stubbies. Great beer, too.

Cleber said...

Hello John,
You know this site?

The concept of Flintstones is on "Antidiluvian Our Ancestors"

A hug and my admiration

Anonymous said...

Ha! That's the bag of milk thing Corbett Vanoni was telling me about. Madness! -CBC