Saturday, August 18, 2007

Animation Criticism 2

"When I was doing character designs for action-adventure shows like GI Joe and Ghostbusters, I was frustrated that the producer and directors always insisted on a design approach that actually worked against the strengths of animation: the characters always had to be drawn 'realistically,' with 'realistic' facial features and anatomy, too many folds in their clothes, and way too much detail twenty-four drawings per second, every little line had to be drawn thousands of times; the more lines on a character, the less time an animator has to draw those lines correctly, especially on a TV budget and schedule. Result: crappy bosses would say, 'No, that's too flat' or 'too designy' or (my favorite) 'too cartoony.'"

- Bruce Timm, Batman: Animated (1998)

"...I have a lot of respect for The Simpsons, but it's the same tradition as Rocky & Bullwinkle: They're very clever scripts, and they had no intention of animating them...Last night, when I was signing some cels, this deaf girl came up. She could read my lips, and she said that the thing she likes about the Warner cartoons and the Disney cartoons is that she could tell what was happening without hearing the dialogue. And that's what we tried to do: We always ran the pictures without dialogue, so we could see whether the action of the body would somehow convey what we were talking about...It's what I call 'illustrated radio.' The thing has to tell the whole story in words before you put the drawings in front of it."

- Chuck Jones, The Onion interview (1998)

"If you watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon, they squash and stretch and make funny expressions, and they do all kinds of things that you laugh at, visually. You couldn't do anything like that in the 70s or 80s. It was against the law. The thing everyone blames is that TV cartoons are a lot cheaper than theatrical cartoons, and that's true...(but) the characters still did impossible things; they just didn't do them with full animation and as many backgrounds...that was because those cartoons were still made by cartoonists. By about 1964, Fred Silverman had invented the concept of doing Saturday-morning cartoons...They had to produce a million cartoons, faster and more than they had ever done before. And all the cartoonists who had done the classic cartoons were starting to get old, and there weren't enough of them to go around. So they just started hiring people off the street...People who could draw at all were really valuable by that time. People who could write, nobody gave a shit about...all of a sudden, hordes of complete amateurs are writing cartoons...From about the mid-60s until about 1990, it was the worst form of art ever created."

- John Kricfalusi, The Onion interview (2001)

I should disclose that John Kricfalusi's blog "All Kinds of Stuff" was the inspiration for this series of posts, as well as being one of the greatest blogs ever created. Some of the comparative examples I cite came straight from him. As a veteran animator, industry pioneer and iconoclast his writing on animation is completely different from the critical mainstream of any era, or the small pool of well known books about animation by animators and non-animators alike (Leonard Maltin's Of Mice And Magic, Chuck Jones' Chuck Amuck. The blog consists in equal parts of animation instruction and memoir of his 30+ years finagling with the poor state of the industry. His stories check out with what I've observed during my life long patronage of animation: Disney at infancy, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network in adolescence, Japanese animation and classic Warner Brothers in late adolescence, about the time I began to think of animation history as tangential to film's. Read the whole thing some weekend, won't you?

This is my attempt as a non-animator animation fan to summarize what I've learned from this animator and why it checks out with my take. This is the call to arms of objective standards in animation criticism or writing, which depends upon broader reconsideration of standards. We do have standards, right? To concede this point is to say one will dig anything without actual feeling on the part of the film or animation product.

Even the most casual fan of any medium knows their tastes have standards of quality. For animation fans, this is re-appraisal that's long overdue.

Recently while taking stock of old VHS I found and rewatched Peter Pan, 1953 from Disney. A childhood favorite, what remained in my memory was not the quality of the voice acting or even the voices themselves. Maybe one or two songs - later to become the pitifully prerequisite of all Disney films. Disney suffered the same blandness through it's own adherence to bland cuteness, animation essentially made for moms and small children. What made the indelible image on my mind was the most obvious aspect: the design of the drawn image and the specificities of it's movement. Seems obvious to remark aloud regarding any animation, but in practice people forget. Figuring out that it was the animation itself and not the secondary details about Captain Hook, or Dumbo the elephant, or any of them was a major realization.

On the other side of the animation coin, why do I have strong remembrances of Looney Tunes? It's comedy remains crystal clear in your psyche through expressions, which in animation require continual changes of drawings frequently involving the contortions that became known as "stretch and squash" and what could be loosely defined as animated acting. In Disney, the changes in drawing are done to create smoothness of motion rather than expression, but it still requires the will of animators. Neither are possible when animation is compartmentalized overseas into the factory model of production, and original exciting designs are not possible when everyone either copies the antiquated "cute" aspects of Disney, or whatever the trendiest style of the day is, or both.

Somehow, even as a kid, I knew there was something drastically different about the feel of those cartoons from the contemporary ones advertising action figures or adapted from recent pop culture. It wasn't the subject matter, there were plenty of talking animal shows to go around. They were richer in texture, fuller in movement, LIVELIER - Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn and the rest were like real, living people compared to the cast of Captain Planet or Muppet Babies. Better "actors," if you will, and I don't just mean the superior voice stylings of Mel Blanc.

They don't even show Looney Tunes on TV anymore, for all I know I was part of the last generation lucky enough to experience them in between the rest of the mediocrity. I don't mean to toot my own horn about any special intuition towards good cartoons and bad ones, because I think any kid who sees the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote knows on some gut level that more effort and skill has gone into them than the average episode of Smurfs.

The difference between Disney and Warner Brothers is the difference between Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny is the difference between Elvis and The Beatles. Both define and embody unique talent, but only Warners and The Beatles represent rapid experimentation and progress that breaks new ground continuously rather than once in a big way, followed by repetition and diminishing returns.

Here's the basic idea which everyone needs to consider: in animation, drawings matter most. The story is close to irrelevant. The celebrity voices are just that - celebrity voices. Songs are songs, and most of them aren't any good. Animation that lasts is animation that's enjoyable just to look at, even if nothing else.

Let me define what I understand to mean by objective technical standards since improving animation criticism requires higher standards for that term, which must be drawn from the golden age. Progress - including all the research, development and risks taken - during of the golden age of American animation was self-evident from the 1920s to the 1950s. All animation in the world today stands on the shoulders of what those men achieved in a 30 year span. Our culture has not truly taken up that mantle again. There have been scattered modern-day accomplishments in the face of stagnancy, but they have happened on the fringe and not on any industrial level. There no unified sense of competition for excellence between the few remaining animation departments of American movie studios.

In fact, the modern moguls of entertainment industry conglomerates don't have that feeling about ANY of their record labels or film studios, except so far as copying the superficial elements of other people's success. They've figured that ever since baby boomers convinced society that standards of form and craft are repressive, people will buy anything. Since the 1970s that has basically proven true, but the long term effect has been that less people in America go to the movies or buy albums than ever.

I digress. I've long felt that the older cartoons were objectively the best animated and imaginative and therefore most fun ones, but could not articulate why until reading Kricfalusi and reconsidering what made Ren & Stimpy such a shock to the senses compared to it's Saturday morning competition. Turns out it was the animation, not the booger or fart content after all. In bringing back classical animation production through the tv series 1987's "Mighty Mouse" (produced with Ralph Bakshi) and 1990's Ren & Stimpy. I'll go so far as to say the man has had as profound an effect on American animation as the early 20th century's luminaries, only that his contribution has been the effort of re-introducing that period.

If you need to remind yourself what was once the normative standard of American animation once upon a time, watch this. Think about how many drawings went into it. Look how often they change. Think about the difference it makes.

Then remind yourself that this was made in the mid-40s, and if progress still existed as a cultural value our animation today should look even better. Does it?

Kricfalusi's blog uses a lot of compare and contrast examples of animation to chart the decline of American animation. Here's my imitation, to demonstrate his influence post 1987 and 1990:

1970s animation in brief summary:

1980s animation in brief summary:

John K 1987

Funny drawings that move and change! (including cute girls!)

Is there not a NIGHT and DAY difference here?

So you've got this epochal moment, of real animators being allowed to practice their craft, and look what happens the next year -

And the year after that -

Gosh, that Buster Bunny looks a lot like Elwy...

Now, John K comes back again in 1991 with a bigger, better show founded on the same classical principles - Ren and Stimpy - and people's jaws collectively drop once again, thanks to....good drawings that take full advantage of the animation medium!

The subsequent ripoffs copy the basic designs - bulging eyes, big noses, buck teeth - but they sure don't vary their drawings. Hence these stills, because the animation isn't QUITE as fascinatingly dull as the pre-'87 shows to warrant their own clips.

Okay, to be fair, Spongebob actually does try a funny drawing once in a while. It's astonishing how people see this without being aware of the difference that even a little actual cartooning makes, which might have something to do with the show's massive popularity...NAW, that's silly, it must've been a hit because people had been waiting on the edge of their seats for a talking sponge.

The dominant styles of TV animation drawings are now essentially the "Spumco" (R&S, John K's studio) style and UPA style - flat and "retro."

Only the thing is, even the UPA style was brought back to the industry's attention by Spumco...

This is not to imply that Kricfalusi created all the styles he drew from. What made his work exceptional and revived animation slightly from the scum pond of public opinion was that he simply produced animation by animators, rather than balkanized factory assembly or the intentional nullity of what Chuck Jones termed "illustrated radio." He did this by imitating and learning from the methods of the classic golden age animators. Because of just ONE GUY re-introducing those methods, people of all ages in the last 20 years (rather than bored children) began paying attention to animation again. If without knowing why.

Hence another backward trend: the "animated sitcom"

Look, I grew up watching The Simpsons and loving it. Ditto South Park, and god forgive me, I even found Family Guy amusing for a brief while. The crucial thing is that in each case, it was the writing and voices that attracted me. Words and dialogue. Like everyone else, I unconsciously marginalized the animation medium from itself while thinking I was enjoying animation. The fact is, all three shows do not need to be watched, merely listened to. People quote lines from them at each other all the time, but that's all they are - lines, and not the kind that go on paper. You can't quote great animation at someone any more than you can a great painting or sculpture.

Even the phrase "animated sitcom" is a misleading category for them, since we watch live action sitcoms more for the actors' performances than whatever recycled plot they're rolling out that week. Where are the animated performances in modern animation? If they're there at all, they're in feature length films and they all imitate the same four or five Disney character archetypes - or they're all The Genie from Aladdin, zipping around and overacting as fast as possible to create the pretense of being interesting.

By any realistic standard, these are bad, unimaginative and barely mobile drawings. Everyone knows this at some level, we've just trained ourselves to think that drawings are of secondary importance to animation. Zuh?

The takeover of the medium by hack writers which Kricfalusi has been exposing for years relates back my nemesis, the phony form/content dichotomy. In animation's case, when you convince the audience that the story and dialogue are the more important than what makes the medium uniquely it's've got a nice racket on your hands. It's a distinction made for the benefit of those lacking talent but who can describe in words what talented work is supposed to look like.

The imposition of scriptwriting upon animation is a fatal contradiction in the creative process. We know what live action movies feel like when they've especially poor screenwriting, but to be technical about it, ultimately any movie that edits clips together is fulfilling the function of the motion picture medium. Bad animation fulfills it's minimal textbook medium definition for the sake of propping up bad writing. It's why the few jokes that even existed in those horrific 1970s and 80s cartoons were verbal puns too lame for the average 4 year old.

I always felt the darkest examples of these faux-cartoons were sitcom cartoons for kids about going to school, getting dates, learning valuable lessons. These are truly the products of hacks who couldn't get work writing for prime time, and like their adult-oriented counterparts The Simpsons or South Park, you don't ever need to look at the screen. They just talk, talk, talk out the same recycled sitcom scripts you wouldn't even think of watching without the pitiful drawings as justification for "watching a cartoon."

Klasky-Csupo is probably the king studio of horrifyingly ugly designs with hip scripts for kidz about growin' up and goin' to school and stayin' cool and not doin' drugs and givin' out hugs

All these examples of graphic blandness are accompanied by seemingly the bare possible amount of movement required to qualify as "animation." In addition, there is a minimal amount of movement for facial or physical bodily expression: eyes that half-close, shoulders that shrug, arms that can fold, ends of mouths that can curl up or down. Even today, live action actors are not expected to do so little. Though many come close. The human face may not be designed by committee, but committee thinking choses the most inoffensively dull ones among them - from Tom Hanks to Julia Roberts. In animation, they likewise reject any drawings that might, you know, overshadow the brilliant writing.

Have you noticed that when one of these series is occasionally made into a movie, it doesn't improve the animation one iota? Again, goes to show this is not a budgetary crisis, but one of form.

The intentionally bad drawings and animation of South Park have actually popularized crudity as a "style," our standards are so low.

These are from Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block, and it's only distinction from the hacky writing of the Saturday morning kartoon slums is that it's randomly meta-ironic hipster crap designed to impress other hipsters - rather than condescend to children with morally uplifting messages about dealing with bullies.

For all these reasons, the public perception of animation is at a near zero level of comprehension and appreciation. After shots in the arm from John K and Ralph Bakshi's Mighty Mouse and Ren & Stimpy the corporate production of animation has resumed institutional stagnancy and lowering expectations for entertainment in animation. This has happened to live action, but animation being the smaller field the effects have been seen at an accelerated pace.

So far as theatrical animation goes, every other studio imitates the Disney musical template, the cute, bland designs, and the celebrity voices. Why else would people come to see these movies? The ANIMATION? C'mon, they're cartoons! The non-cute ones are more of what Bruce Timm was describing in his quotation, the pseudo-realistic 80s phantasy style of Thundercats and whatnot, swiped from Japanese anime if not actually (cheaply) produced there.

Pixar isn't encouraging either, to tell the truth. I mean sure, I loved Toy Story, but that was over 10 years ago and Ratatouille looks like more of the same. They even copied the big eyed Disney-cute style religiously during that interval of time:

Their imitators have been similar...only uglier, more generic and more stiff:

And they still had to draw people in with Oscar nominated songs and celebrity voices, pure Disney stillborn shit. I suspect their budgets, like Disney's, go toward more "in-between" frames of animation to increase smoothness of movement while ALWAYS remaining "on-model." Ho-hum.

CGI is fancy and high tech, I know, but the technical prowess involved means nothing without skillful design or bold development. Rather than that they simply create shiny mannequins for meta-ironic-sarcastic drivel dialogue between celebrities cashing an easy check. I wouldn't subject my kids to that crap, I'd just throw Peter Pan into the movie player until they were old enough for Bugs Bunny at age 5.

Looney Tunes may have been produced as theatrical shorts, but even adjusting for inflation today's television animation budgets are equivalent. They definitely didn't pay for thousands of Korean factory animators in the golden age. Barring the lifeless animation is automatically produces, they simply couldn't have afforded it.

We know that drawings move, but after that film critics are content that they moved at all, never mind if they moved well. It's all about the voices, dialogue and story formulas that are arbitrary, pathetic and beside the purpose of the medium.

To return to the title of this post - there's no analytical epiphany on why animation criticism sucks once you see how the medium went astray. Fish don't know they're in water, and since the birth of Saturday morning we haven't noticed that the development of the animation medium more or less ended in America.

Reviews of animated movies do not talk about animation, and when they do, it's almost entirely uninformed. Take this excerpt from the otherwise sophisticated Slant Magazine on The Nightmare Before Christmas

"(W)hereas the film is a marvel to look at, it's unfortunately not much in the song or story department, as Danny Elfman's musical numbers are—save for the opening's boisterous "This Is Halloween"—generally banal and unmemorable, and the plot, despite only having to fill out a paltry 76 minutes, ultimately as emaciated and insubstantial as its leading bags of bones."

So the stop-motion movie had great stop-motion, but you deduct points for not having a three-act structure of filler to bloat the run time out? Sheesh.

On Spirited Away (though I won't discuss Japanime 'till the next post):

Miyazaki has a way of losing himself to his imagination, a process that's often frustrating though never less than exhilarating to behold. Plot here takes a backseat to set pieces that flow into each other like a glorious stream of consciousness.

The plot takes a backseat to the animated movie's animation, huh? Maybe that's why it was GOOD!

Bill Plympton is maybe the only American animator still making feature films using actual animation principles. This short review of 2004's "Hair High" starts to get it -

"Though the quality of the animation in and of itself is solid, it's the freedom of animation that allows Plympton to magnify the gravity of each situation that makes the film come to life. Apart from the obviously extravagant hair, the little tics of each character offer a surprising depth that amplifies the backdrop of the '50s even more."

...But reverts to ignorance in the very next sentence.

"Plympton's world of fantasy is right on target...though it more often than not becomes shock for shock's sake and begins to distract from the narrative."

Lord knows you don't want drawings to distract from narrative! Maybe if Plympton, whose bizarre visual imagination built his career, would stop doing weird or gross drawings he could focus more on Oscar-nominated narratives like that of Shark Tale. Christ, that new "Best Animated Feature" category tells you everything you need to know about this insanity.

More recently, here's a review of The Simpsons Movie from The Washington Post which John K mocked:

"The Simpsons' comic aesthetic might be described as nightmare surrealism punctuated by violence and slapstick projected on characters of cartoon simplicity, held together by an internal logic whose flimsiness is part of the joke. Also, everyone seems to have a hyper-articulated, almost prehensile upper lip. The upshot is like a cross between the early mayhem of the Bugs Bunny cartoons with dialogue by Edward Albee. And of course, the whole movie is poorly drawn.

Well, not poorly drawn, but ironically drawn, so the proper descriptor would be 'poorly' drawn. It's supposed to be poorly drawn, just as comedy is supposed to be poorly staged, so only the comedy and never the filmmaking stands out."


You can tell every review of animated film is essentially guessing at the process by which animation happens (beyond flipbook technology) and is completely in the dark about how to evaluate it's quality. So they basically don't, perfunctorily mentioning the words "cartoon" or "animation" once before moving onto "content." It's like if every album review only reviewed the lyrics and not the music.

For the cultured analyst of Le Cinema and the plebian masses alike, the level of ignorance and lack of standards are more or less equal. I've come up with one golden rule for judging animation, and it is this:

Turn off the volume. Do you still want to watch, like that deaf girl whom Chuck Jones met?

"Every once in a while, people will say, 'Hey, did you read this comic book?' 'Ah, the drawings were really crummy in that one.' 'Oh, but the story was great!' I'm sorry, but I can't get ast the ugly drawings. If you want a good story, read Hemingway. Some comic writer is going to write better than a real writer? I don't think so. It's not all about the drawings, but it's about the drawings first. I don't say story is not important. But without the drawings, who gives a shit?"

- John Kricfalusi, The Onion interview (2001)

If film critics start writing about animation primarily in terms of animation - Were the drawings good? Were they fun to watch move?- maybe society's collective standards could raise. More likely, we'll be called cranks who are missing the point that Family Guy is supposed to be funny because of zany pop culture references and the aesthetics don't matter. But fuck 'em, I know what I like and I know WHY I like it. That's all, folks.

Next time I'll talk about Japanese animation. Although it's design styles are incestuous, they're solidly constructed and the directors actually understand the importance of layout. And layout is where comics, animation and live-action begin to intersect in interesting ways, through fascinating crossover artists like Daniel Clowes, Frank Tashlin, Mamoru Oshii and Tim Burton.

1 comment:

Felicity Walker said...

There should be room for more than one kind of animation. I love the “realistic” style of things like G.I. Joe (1980s version). Not everything has to be cartoony!

I’m glad Bruce Timm’s supervisors were able to reel him in when he worked on those realistic-style shows. The Batman animated series style would definitely have been way too flat and too cartoony for those shows. Even if the animators were rushed and made mistakes, the final product still looked better because of the realistic style.

The problem with the flat, cartoony style on Batman was that it only worked when you had a very good animation studio that could think through the faces and figures and interpret what the two-dimensional model-sheets were meant to imply. As soon as you got a cheap studio like Akom that took the designs at face value, it looked like paper cutouts.

Ironically, once I reached the point where I could appreciate the Batman aesthetic, they changed it again. The newer Timm shows are even uglier, thanks to even pointier model sheets and CGI effects. I can enjoy the original Batman and Superman animated series, and the earlier, analog episodes of Batman Beyond. After that, they lose me.

There are no shows now that look like the shows I liked in the 1980s. Every so often someone will go slightly more realistic, but either they don’t go far enough, or they get enough detail but it looks too anime.

In his Batman: Animated coffee-table book (source of the “too flat/cartoony” line) Timm mentions the influence of Alex Toth. Toth’s Superfriends designs are simple, but deceptively so. They stay realistic while minimizing the number of lines used. If the only lesson an animator takes away from the Toth designs is that simple is good, he’s learned the wrong lesson.