Monday, April 13, 2009

Goals of a Shorts Program 8 - developing new techniques


Shorts Can Build In Technical Progress (Silly Symphonies model)
Cartoons in the 1930s and 40s advanced every year noticeably. On purpose.
Which company today can say their cartoons are more advanced than any other company's? None. The TV cartoons actually get more primitive every year at a steady rate. Even obscenely big budget CG cartoons barely change from year to year. They may grow more hairs and pores but remain primitively designed and acted within the context of the same old stories, puns and cliches retold a thousand times.
Is this an expensive one or a cheap one? I can't tell the difference.

There is no progress built into the system, no competitiveness built into it.
Walt Disney actually made a science out of progress. He built it into his studio system by creating a series of cartoons just to discover and develop new techniques. He instituted art classes and created "action analysis" to improve his animators' understanding of the way things move.

His Silly Symphonies almost seem boring on purpose, because they are so intent on pushing new techniques forward. I don't think you have to make boring cartoons in order to advance. I prefer the Looney Tunes method of trying out a few "one-shots" every year: highly entertaining cartoons that don't necessarily use the star characters but allow the directors to put more money and time into a couple of cartoons to try new things out. What they learn, they in turn can apply to their more formulaic star vehicles and in the process the cartoons get better and better overall at a noticeable rate.

At MGM, Tex Avery was an experimenter, while Bill and Joe's more conservative Tom and Jerry series was a beneficiary of Tex's (and Looney Tunes') bold inventiveness.

ONE SHOTS as well as Star Vehicles


Besides trying to discover appealing star characters, part of a shorts program should be devoted to progress: to developing new techniques to make your cartoons obviously better than your competition's.

The faster you advance, the more primitive you can make your competitor's work seem.

Our business frowns upon this and builds in safeguards against progress. It values "consistency" over experimentation and advancement. Model sheets, story bibles, pages of catch phrases for each character and on and on...

The result of the philosophy of "never change" is to actually degrade consistently year by year, because it is physically impossible to stay the same. You have to move in one way or the other - forwards or backwards.

Many TV cartoons today look like still images of stick figures. Childlike frozen stick figures that only move in the sense that they are being pushed and pulled around in flash like paper puppets. But no one knows it or cares because no studio is trying to outdo anybody else. It's like each studio looks at the others to see how low it's safe to aim this year. (The same applies to stories, but I won't get into that here)


What happened to the idea that entertainment had to be amazing? That entertainers had to have obviously rare and astonishing abilities? When my parents see a modern cartoon, I've heard them say, "I don't get it, I can draw as well as that." That whole generation expected to be amazed by anything that was called entertainment. Athletes have to be strong, fast and coordinated. Singers used to have to be able to carry a tune and have beautiful rare voices. Cartoons and illustrations used to attract and impress the average person by their rare visual skills, humor and inventiveness. The average viewer didn't think "Well, hey I can do that." Today, big studios aim down to compete with "user-generated" content. Is there a point of spending a lot of money doing what just about anybody else can do cheap?

If there was a studio devoted to progress, within a couple years no one else could compete with it because the other cartoons would look so primitive by comparison. Today unfortunately, amateurism is the trend. I don't even think the people in charge know it. I think they actually believe that the more primitive a cartoon is the more advanced and hip it is, but maybe I'm missing some work of genius out there. I remember when "good-for-you" cartoons like Caillou and Arthur looked primitive to me. Now they look like standard professional network cartoon fare - or even better in some cases.