Saturday, December 27, 2008

Wither the cartoon?


I've been thinking a lot about how the classic short cartoon has disappeared from the modern animation world. How do I define "classic cartoon"? Criteria for inclusion would be:
  • Full animation (not limited 4 fps TV stuff, but not super fluid animation on 1's, either)
  • Over the top 1940's cartoon animation style of motion and expression
  • Zany characters who are capable of existing outside of a larger character development "background"
  • Primary platform is short material (not feature films or TV shows)
  • Backgrounds designed to build a stage for action, not build a world for believability
  • Writing is gag centric, not long complex narratives requiring acts
  • Primary focus on visual presentation, not dialogue.
  • Action and music are joined at the hip. Music is not "stuck on" in post.
Examples: Woody the Woodpecker, Droopy, Bugs Bunny, Foghorn Leghorn, Goofy, Donald Duck, Roadrunner, etc.

In general most animation today is "talky". Lots of dialog. TV animation consists of 5 stock poses and a lot of talking. Kids TV is pretty much the same, but with a lot of screaming (seriously, they scream a lot). Feature films are big money showcases that focus on longer narratives that demand more character development. Not as much screaming, though. For quick giggles or a 60 second bit of diversionary amusement we have Flash animation on the internet, but nobody will confuse that with a classic cartoon. Independent animation often focuses on heavy topics that, while meaningful, usually aren't very fun (JibJab takes on politics, normally not fun, but they make it fun). The studio shorts are mini versions of their big film brethren, and they share the high "per second" budgets and manpower needs of features, too. Now, I'm not saying that all of these are worthless crap. I actually like a lot of stuff. I'm just asking- where is the cartoon?

I'm talking about the unapologetically gag driven, musically integrated, over the top classic 1940's style cartoon? With animation that's not bound by earthly physics? With backgrounds that aren't focused on realistic detail & shadows? With characters that are flatly rendered but expressively drawn? It's gone, isn't it? Other than an occasional try here or there, that form of the craft has faded into the past. Not only is the form gone, but all the guys who made it are gone- and with them the knowledge of how to pull off that style of cartoon. Will it ever come back? Or is it a style of animation whose time has passed?

20 comments:

Gearóid said...

I think it is gone, as well. I think a lot of it has to do with money and some of it has to do with talent.
It was fairly cheap to do at the time. As soon as it became too expensive, we started to get the awful animation of the 60's, 70's and 80's. We're starting to see a slight shift back to at least decent animation, but it is still story driven.

Pandalope said...

I've thought about this a lot myself and it's just plain sad to know that my generation was probably the last to grow up watching this kind of animation. I'll admit I didn't grow up in the era of the 1940's cartoon, but what was on TV when I was growing up was far superior to what's on TV now. With so much attention on the dialog and "story" kids today don't get that dose of just weird zaniness unless they are fortunate to get something like the Boomerang channel. I would like to hope that at some point things will turn around and we'll see more of that old style coming back, but who knows when that'll ever happen.

Rob said...

Pixar's "Presto" would be a modern equivalent, I'd say. Sure it's CG, but if it was hand drawn it would fit your checklist perfectly.

Wonkey the Monkey said...

Yeah, it's pretty much gone because nobody knows how to make money with it any more. However, this cartoon made within the last year or so is a nice throwback to 1950s stylized cartoons:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbQLCeRr5_c

Keith Lango said...

I think Presto is probably the best effort we've seen along these lines in some years. But it required a huge manpower and infrastructure cost to make it. I'm not sure if that really means anything, though. I guess I see that monster budget and think "Well, yeah, if you want to throw enough money down a hole you can make anything." But then I suppose that shouldn't be a factor. It was a fun enough short. I'll have to watch it again to see if the animation was timed to a beat or not. (ie: not animated to music, but animated musically)

Gearóid said...

I could probably do the basic research on this, but I'll ask the question anyway: How much time and effort went into the Warner Bros. cartoons that we love so much? How often were they released? We were lucky enough to see them at a time when there was a full catalog to draw upon.

Keith Lango said...

From Wikipedia:
When WB took over the studio from Schlesinger in 1944 there was a schedule of 5 weeks for a 7 minute film from start to finish. They had 3 production units with a director and crew for each. Each unit was expected to make 10 shorts per year, or 30 per year for the whole studio.

From the Animgraph site:
1946 WB's Great Piggy Bank Robbery had a production budget of $25,000 (roughly $170k in today's money)or a modern equivalent of $410 per second.
Disney's 1941 Pluto Short Lend a Paw cost roughly $720k (in today's money) for a per second cost of $1700. The same cost applies to any typical MGM 1940 Tom & Jerry short.

1944 Walter Lantz Woody Woodpecker short cost approx. $290,000 in modern money, for a $700 per second cost.

For reference and comparison:
A typical Pixar/Disney/DW/BlueSky film costs approx $15,000 per second for a feature. Theatrical shorts are the same cost. DVD only shorts are about half that. A typical cable TV kid's cartoon show costs about $133 per second (for a 22 minute show). A typical direct to DVD feature costs about $800-1300 per second, depending who's making it.

So from a budgetary standpoint a typical WB 1940's cartoon fell inbetween a modern kid's TV show and a direct to DVD budget.

Tim said...

• Knick Knack
• Roller Coaster Rabbit
• Tummy Trouble

Paul Goodrich said...

How about the "Guide Dog, Guard Dog, etc." cartoons by Bill Plympton? I'm not if the music is what you're thinking but the animation, backgrounds, charactor stuff is the same.

Andrew Lee said...

Don't forget "How to Hook Up a Home Theater"

I get what your saying though, those cartoons are so few and far between.

I figure cartoons like most anything run in cycles (pun intended). Before too long, and it seems to be happening now, people will tire of CG and the obnoxiously loud cartoons on CN. They'll want something new and different, for the generations coming up...that new and different could be "classic" animation....or it could be something else.

Depends on who decides to go ahead and tip the boat over and find out.

All I know is...I smell an opportunity...don't you?

Andrew Lee said...

a little more.....

I spent Christmas with my in-laws in Florida. I went somewhere with my brother-in-law in his car. When he cranked up the motor...I heard the Looney Tunes theme. I thought to myself...damn...it's finally happened, i've gone insane. He told me that his 5 year old daughter watches Looney Tunes and that she watches them on her little dvd player in the car. She absolutely adores them, and can barely stand to watch anything on TV these days, it's all Looney Tunes, Pink Panther,and Tom and Jerry. Needless to say, I am so incredibly proud of her.

My little brother, he's 7, he watches the MGM shorts on Boomerang as well as Tom and Jerry on DVD.

The kids coming up have something that we didn't ...access. We only had Saturday morning. These guys can get it 24-7 on a dvd set.

That's what's been missing the last 10 years or so....exposure. Now that these kids are getting the good stuff, they will expect better, and they deserve it for sure.

I think it will come back...while some trends deserve to die in the past...a good and worthy product always makes it's way back around.

Hopefully.... :)

Alonso said...

isn't it just a question of there being no financial support of the shorts? I really have no idea but I had the impression the merry melodies were sold to cinema's as shorts to play before features, which doesn't exist today. So shorts today have been co-opted by studios as training grounds and R&D projects, so it's not surprising they cost the same as features per second. Maybe if there were an outlet for shorts for shorts sake then the musicly gag based short would come back.

(I could be way off, haven't checked my history)

Chando said...

I think it is not very likely to introduce that style in its next evolutionary stage while maintaining economic viability.

It's been attempted so many times to reintroduce that genre, but every time they missed their goal. When I heard about the new series of Duck Dodgers I was ecstatic. But the series was a real turn off. It's like the fools trying to finish Gaudi's "Sagrada Familia" cathedral.

For me the absolute dark ages of animation were the 80's (I like Don Bluth stuff though). TV animation was horrible and what was all that preachy stuff at the end of each episode all about anyway?

Thank God for the Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy. And when Dexter's Laboratory was aired for the first time I thought: They are reintroducing Gerald Mc BoingBoing. Boy was I glad it had its own style. Ultra stylistic retro style of the likes of Roger Ramjet and anime inspired animation and narration. Since then allmost all TV cartoon follows the same formula. It is time for the next evolutionary stage.

Hey Keith, may I ask you something off topic... I'm looking for the name of a French feature animation that was made in the 80's. It's about this space crew that was in contact with a boy marooned on a strange surrealistic planet. They try to keep him alive until they could get to them. The boy's name is Pielle I believe. SPOILER ALERT -- In the end it turned out to be that the ailing captain of the spaceship is Pielle. They were communicating with him through some kind of time paradox or something --

Andrew Lee said...

I've been seeing a lot of little 3 to 5 minute shorts cropping into time slots between shows on Disney, Nick and Boomerang. Granted a lot of these shorts are tied to the respective properties of those networks, but occasionally something original gets played.

With a really great product, (and a decent salesman)I imagine that would be a good a place to start as any.

Then there's always the internet...if someone can figure out how to make that work :)

Chando said...

Hi, never mind the name of that French movie I asked before. I see that Wikipedia is become a power to reckon with. I'm donating as we speak. The name of the movie is Les Maîtres du temps. French movies can be summed up in one word: Trippy. Sorry for being off topic.....

Justin said...

It seems to me like the core of what made the 1940's stuff what it was is wrapped up in what Keith quoted from Wikipedia above:

"5 weeks for a 7 minute film from start to finish. They had 3 production units with a director and crew for each. Each unit was expected to make 10 shorts per year, or 30 per year for the whole studio."

In other words, the shorts were defined by their limitations. Limited time. Limited crew (leading to limited story meddling). Limited resources all-around.

What did that do? It forced them to economize, to take short-cuts wherever possible, leaving the bulk of their limited time focused in specific areas that made the shorts shine. It forced them to develop skills in quickly analyzing options and picking the ones that they instinctively knew would work. In less time than it takes some studios to approve a single character design in today's production schedules, they had an entire short done, knew whether or not their decisions worked, and were moving on to the next one armed with what they learned.

These days taking a short-cut to get something done is considered a last resort. These days our "limits" are gargantuan compared to what those guys worked with. As a result, we haven't developed skills in rapid-fire, efficient decision-making. We've developed skills in noodling.

This reminds me of the story of the class that was split up and told to make pottery (forgive me if I forget the details). One half was to make as many vases (or whatever they were) as possible by the deadline. The other half was told to make only one vase by the same deadline. In the end, the group that made a ton came away with a higher quality product than the group that only made one.

While you can't perfectly compare this to the world of animation production today, there are some similarities. There are lots of places that are fully willing to spend tons of money and time to ponderously make individual "vases," trying to make each as good as it can possibly be, but nobody is willing to do what these old animation teams did, learning from the process of cranking out piece after piece after piece.

It also reminds me, Keith, of the work that you and several others did for the "Auto-tainment" release at Big Idea. I'm sure that everyone involved in that project learned a ton about economizing. I don't know how you feel about that stuff, but from my perspective, there are bits of those "shorts" that are still more appealing/entertaining to me now than the a lot of what Big Idea has released before or since. No, it's not the same type of thing that the 1940's cartoon crews were doing, but it still has that ring of inspired creativity within very tight constraints.

This leads me to think that you don't make magic with multi-million-dollar budgets. You make it with just the right set of limits, and the right people who are willing to work within those limits.

Keith Lango said...

That comment right there, ladies and gentlemen, is why Justin Barrett rocks. :)

On another note, I re-watched the two Scrat shorts and I thought they captured at least a portion of that 1940's vibe even while sticking with the typical CG approach. That's a character who could continue to live in shorts alone and who would be successful.

Horganovski said...

Very interesting topic for me, I'm a 3D animation student who loves the classic WB stuff.

One thing with Scrat, and Wile E Coyote before him, is that they are essentially losers, very lovable ones though.
Sometimes it seems to me that some of the big studios like Pixar (while I love their movies) are afraid to have characters that are downbeat in their movies. If a character in a Pixar movie starts off as a loser you know before long he's going to 'achieve his dreams because he never gave up'.

The real comedy/tragedy of the Coyote or Scrat is that he never wins.. no matter how hard he tries.
And we still love him for that.. he's not an aspirational, inspiring figure. He's someone we can feel superior too but at the same time we remain sympathetic to him.

I'd love to see a little more edge in CG animation, something with the spirit of Tex Avery,Chuck Jones, or more modern stuff like Ren and Stimpy or Invader Zim.
Maybe with the way the economy is going people might like to see the return of some lovable losers.

David Beer said...

Wow, really interesting thoughts on this thread.

Also what Andrew lee said about access

I kinda feel that the developement needed on convincing rigs also plays a part in making shorter cartoons in cg with limited time. maybe if it was for a character that is to be used many times.

This whole discussion may become even more important in this financial storm thats developing.

David Beer said...

HaHa, this roadrunner catoon is tops!