Insomnia | Commentary

How Cartoon Animation Steered Off Course

By John Kricfalusi / March 19, 2009

This article was originally published on John K Stuff.


It happened in the late '40s.

ANIMATION GREW FASTER THAN ANY ART FORM IN HISTORY

From the '20s and through the '30s animation exploded. From simple stick figures to a whole new discipline that took advantage of a visual element that had never been possible before -- movement.

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

IT WAS THE MOST APPEALING OF ALL VISUAL ARTS

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

ITS WHOLE POINT WAS TO DISTILL THE FUN WHILE LEAVING OUT THE BORING PARTS

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".

IT WAS NOT CONSIDERED ART BUT MERE "ENTERTAINMENT"

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

ANIMATION ARTISTS CAN'T DRAW AS WELL AS ILLUSTRATORS AND GET LESS RESPECT

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 developed and suffered from 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 industry.

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
Spectacle
Crying
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.

ANIMATION ARTISTS TOOK MOVEMENT FOR GRANTED BECAUSE THEY WERE SO GOOD AT IT

Animators too busy comparing themselves unfavorably to illustrators, comic strip artists, live action movies and other related forms 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.

ANIMATION FIGURED OUT ITS BASICS BY 1940 - then stopped

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, animators developed and refined this handful of techniques and produced the best animation in history.

ANIMATION LEADERS AIMED MORE AT THE DRAWINGS THAN THE MOVEMENT BY THE MID 40s

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: MORE COMPLICATED DESIGNS - BUT SAME MOTION PRINCIPLES AND FORMULAS

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 him. More effort is expended on just not making jerky mistakes than on making the characters fun and entertaining. For twenty-five 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 - LESS ANIMATION, MORE CLEVER AND STYLISH POSES

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 of years earlier.

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

UPA - MORE LIKE RESPECTABLE MAGAZINE CARTOONS - STYLIZED - LESS ANIMATION

Magazine cartoonists drawing for Punch or The New Yorker got a lot more intellectual respect than 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.

IN GENERAL - MORE TALK, LESS WALK

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 still believed that that was what animation should do -- it should move. They got that right 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.

CLAMPETT LEFT WARNER BROS. IN 1946

All growing art forms need bold, charismatic, talented leaders. Clampett was the biggest and 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 LAST LEADER TO KEEP UP CARTOONY ANIMATION

Tex Avery was the last leader to continue doing inventive cartoony animation, but he was less influential 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 a single character that the public really wanted to follow?

TEX DIDN'T CREATE CHARACTERS AND THE PUBLIC WOULD RATHER STICK WITH LESS FUNNY CHARACTERS THAN WITH FUNNIER CONCEPT CARTOONS

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.

THE END

Tex was the last guy to uphold cartoon animation's roots, but 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.


John Kricfalusi has been working in the animation industry since the '80s.