"If this business was easy, it would be a sin."
-Hayao Miyazaki, Animerica Magazine. 1993
Animation is the youngest medium of art that mankind has created. Spanning barely over one hundred years, its history is as rich and dramatic as any other. Starting as the simple idea of an illusion of moving art by a couple clever innovators at Edison's film company in the early 1900's, it soon boomed into a mega-corporate commercial venture that employed thousands and captivated millions only decades later. It spread outside of America and took many different forms in many different countries and cultures. Today, the face of animation is very different than it ever was. Computers, corporate chokeholds and the death of the innovators of animation has left a doubtful future for the preservation of animation's defining age.
The 1910's saw the rise of animation as a serious medium and the first studios began to appear in the United States. Winsor McCay, a masterful draftsman and artist, had created two cartoons with ink on rice paper - "Little Nemo" in 1911 and "Gertie The Dinosaur" in 1916, which contained over 10,000 individual drawings. Unlike the largely experimental and detached experiments in animation before them, McCay's cartoon creations had a sense of weight and character to them, and they captivated audiences wherever he showed them. Knowing it was unrealistic for one person to create these on their own time repeatedly, studios began to make their way into the limelight. Fleischer Brothers, Terrytoons, Warner Brothers, MGM, Disney, and Leon Schlesinger to name a few.
For 50 years animation flourished as an art form. It was unhinged and wild, allowing its creators to put to work anything their imaginations were willing. The artists ran the show - it wasn't about the money, it was about the story. The spectrum of animation being produced ranged from the wildly bizarre, akin to Bob Clampett's "Porky In Wackyland" (1938), where the audience takes witness to Porky Pig's oncoming insanity - to silent and stirring social commentaries like "Black & White" (1933), a short music-driven cartoon by Ivan Ivanov-Vano dealing with racism. Their styles differed from the simple, yet smart designs of from Pat Sullivan's 1920's studio with characters like Felix the Cat, to the painstakingly detailed epic worlds of Walt Disney's money-eating venture in films like "Fantasia".
The mid-20th century saw the peak of animation - often referred to as the "Golden Age". Warner Bros. Animation Studio led the way with timeless classics of quality not often found in your average Saturday Morning programming. "[It was the] Golden Age for [Warner Bros. Director] Chuck Jones: A time for fully realized characters in ideally told tales so brief and ingenious in their structure it could take the breath away, and yet so disarmingly simple that even adults could understand them." (Beck, 124). Their success was attributed to their teamwork - a group of artists working together under one roof. "His team had worked so long and well together that they could very nearly finish each other's sentences." (Beck). Many cartoons created during this era are heralded as the best of all time, 1957's Chuck Jones' short "What's Opera, Doc?" being chosen #1 in animation historian Jerry Beck's book "The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals" in 1994.
To their creators, the drawings in their cartoons were actors, not symbols (Barrier, 539.) They all believed that what they were doing had a purpose void of material gain or profit. Walt Disney, founder of the Walt Disney Company and director of many of the earlier films in their canon said, "I have had a stubborn, blind confidence in the cartoon medium, a determination to show the skeptics that the animated cartoon was deserving of a better place, that it was more than mere 'filler' on the program, more than a novelty, that it could be one of the greatest mediums of fantasy and entertainment." (Solomon). To this affect, cartoons and animation had successfully saturated themselves in the imaginations of millions of Americans. Characters like Mickey Mouse, Felix The Cat and Bugs Bunny became instantaneous household names in an era when mass communication was a luxury. To this end, animation naturally began to spread beyond the borders of the United States.
As early as the 1930's, Russia, Germany and France were creating animations. By the 1960's, animation was flourishing worldwide as well. In March 1956, Japan's first major animation studio Toei is founded on the principal of being the "Disney of the East" (Beck, 181). It still exists today. Even further East, China's Shanghai Film Studio created many award-winning animated classics that were culturally relevant and captured their society's imagination. Many other nations housed successful studios as well, including but not limited to Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia and the United Kingdom. All these studios took their cues from American models and adapted them over time to fit their styles, cultures and methods of storytelling.
However - as with all new media - as animation began to penetrate society and bring about a new way of delivering a message to people, some people felt threatened and intimidated by this sudden wave of information in a format unfamiliar to them. Some also felt threatened by the people responsible for the content. While the 50's and 60's were the Golden Age for animators, it was also the beginning of a dark age.
Post-WWII America brought about the Cold War and the fear of Communism. In the 1950's, the Communist Party of America had reached its peak of 50,000 members. Propaganda and fears of the "nuclear winter" prompted a federal breach in American political freedom as the United States government created the House Representative's Committee on Un-American Activities. Tasked in finding high-profile Communist Party members, the "Hollywood Blacklist" was created in order to weed them out and ruin their careers. Often with little or no evidence, entertainment employees would often disappear from payrolls without notice (Barrier, 539). One studio that suffered from this was United Productions of America. Major UPA writers Phil Eastman, Bill Scott and John Hubley were accused of being Community party supporters and subsequently blacklisted. Hubley was the only one with legitimate party ties. Either way, the actions of the investigation severely damaged the work ethic and spirit of the studio, and UPA stopped producing cartoons in 1959.
Another blow to the animation industry were lobbyist groups to censor and regulate the diverse animation industry. While many cartoons were for children and adults alike, rising animators like Ralph Bakshi were "reminding audiences that cartoons are not just for children", creating the first X-rated animated feature films. By the 1970's, "[the] triumph of various parent groups in their efforts to strip all of the fun from cartoons [had succeeded], essentially removing all slapstick action comic violence, injecting educational and pro-social messages into the narratives." (Beck, 246.) Cartoons had been reduced to a "Saturday morning ghetto" (Beck) with shallow, childish stories.
The drop in production quality was not singularly tied to censorship. The businessman duo gone animation studio Hannah Barbera had begun to mass produce cartoons in a factory-line type process known today as limited animation, a practice in what animator Anne Joliffe described fondly as akin to "bottling pickles". Reused backgrounds, walk cycles and animated sequences saved the studios a lot of money. These major cost-cutting practices were appealing to the ever-growing broadcasting networks that distributed animated material. Studios like Warner Brothers became less enchanted with the higher budgets they used to give their teams, and as the 3D-glasses craze swept film, WB Animation quickly flickered and died. On top of the domestic money saving techniques, outsourcing most of the work overseas to Japanese and Australian studios kept an even tighter budget at the expense of animation jobs. Because of these circumstances, the 1970's had a sharp contrast to the cartoons of the previous decade. Characterized by cheap production values, stiff animation and weak writing at the expense of not offending any audience, most cartoons of this era had little staying power and are long forgotten. As the mid-1990's approached, only Dreamworks and Disney remained from the wake of the oppression of animation, as Richard William's 29-years-in-the-making masterpiece Thief and the Cobbler was seized by Warner Studios and sent off to Korea for a swift video release.
While American animation suffered at the expense of corporate interests, foreign animation continued to thrive - especially Japanese animation. The fundamental difference between American and Japanese studios were the people in charge. While NBC, ABC and the major broadcasting networks left artists at the mercy of corporate changes, Japanese studios kept the artists in charge of the business. Over time, certain directors made their way from television to theatrical releases. One of them was Hayao Miyazaki, arguably Japan's most prominent director in their history. Japan's film industry is dominated by anime, and it shows in box office numbers.
Japan did suffer from the same stereotypes of animation for a time, but Miyazaki's films bridged the gap between general audiences of adults and children. With Miyazaki on the front, anime from comic books to animation exploded in Japan as the most popular medium for storytelling - and something was available for every age group. Rumiko Takahashi, creator of some of Japan's top selling manga such as Ranma ½ and Uresei Yatsura, is the prime market for young girls. Yoshiyoki Tomino, creator of the Gundam series which sparked a mecha/space opera craze, grabbed a large audience of adult males. These are only a few examples of the explosion of modern animation and art culture in Japan, which has only grown in the last 40 years - similar to the growth of American animation at its birth.
Unafraid to express his creativity and not bound by any restrictions, Miyazaki thrived in Japan as Chuck Jones did during the Golden Age of Warner Brothers. "How can we make films which will gain the acceptance of those people who've never seen animation before? We need to get near to that universal appeal of animation when making a movie, or all our efforts will have been for nothing." (Fuiji, 27). Part of his and other's success was also the lack of creativity in the live action film industry. "I never trust the response of industry people. They're too conservative. They've always been behind the times. If industry people knew what they were talking about, the movie business wouldn't be on the decline like it is." (Fuiji).
But as time went on and the American animation industry continued to falter, as did Japans. Animators had fought several battles in the states to get their jobs back, turning a once stable job into a rollercoaster of stunted projects and short contracts from corporations interested in creating a product, not a film. This turned American animators from a few teams of people who worked together into a travelling band of starved talent fighting for quick fixes and a short term creative injection. Like a sick patient dependent on manufactured pharmaceuticals to sustain itself, major American broadcasting networks have made animation teams wholly dependent on their brief inoculations of cartoon projects, stifling the creative process and everything that made the studios of the Golden Age successful (and profitable.)
How this affected Japanese animation is simple - its existence is dependent on its predecessors. Yoshiyoki Tomino of Gundam was inspired by American sci-fi. Rumiko Takahashi of Ranma½, Spiderman. Yukito Kishiro of Battle Angel Alita, Frank Miller's Batman. Like Toei Animation's goal to be the "Disney of the East", Japanese pioneers of anime were first inspired by American counterparts. Since then, they have taken on their own look, and on the flip side American cartoons began to take on their looks as anime crept its way on the airwaves.
Recently, Japan's own Golden Age is beginning to show signs of trouble in a different fashion. While America feels creatively bankrupt, animators in Japan have felt that they are beginning to run out of ideas. Mamoru Oshii, an animation director, said that "animation studios are surviving, animators are getting better paid, but the quality of new works is not improving. On the surface, it's thriving, but in reality, there's very little new happening." (Saito). This issue is perhaps related to the aging group of Japan's flagship of anime pioneers - similar to the plight of American animation pioneers unwillingly succumbing to mega corporations and the conveyor-belt cartoons of the 70's.
Hayao Miyazaki is now nearing 70 years old. Oshii states in the same interview; "From a directors' viewpoint, we cannot expect anything new from Miyazaki. He is like a very old man, almost retired now." Even Miyazaki has expressed his doubt in the generation that precedes him - and not just in Japan. "I don't know how much the people in Hollywood actually believed in [loving film]. Personally, they were probably more concerned with getting a home in Beverly Hills. But at one time, that illusion held sway throughout the world. It's become too difficult to even pretend you believe in that anymore. The goal now is to throw a huge amount of money at a project, do a huge promotion, and mobilize a huge number of viewers."
While Japan's market suffered from more of the same, American studios follow the model Miyazaki explained. A good example was Disney under the reigns of Eisner in from the mid-1990's to the early 2000's. As Eisner saw Disney's toy and product profits soar, films were chosen for production based on their value to toy manufacturers such as Hasbro, instead of their appeal to audiences. As the animation became more about selling a product, Disney began to struggle to captivate its audiences. Roy Disney, upon retiring in 2003, described Eisner's Disney as "soul-less."
After the production of "Brother Bear", Eisner closed Disney's 2D Florida studio and fired nearly every 2D production animator and artist, proudly boasting that "2D is dead." Not soon after, Eisner was pressured to step down as CEO, and did so. However he left in his wake the near destruction of Walt Disney, a company founded on the principle that animation should be treated as a gift, in the name of greed and maximizing profits. To stay afloat, Disney would eventually purchase Pixar studios, whose business model headed by John Lasseter would save the wavering animation giant for the time being.
Although it is not a question of whether if cartoons will survive but how, it's important to see how the industry has come to this point. There are two parts to the cycle of animation - the boom of creativity when artists are free to be artists, and the busts, when money takes the reins and the artists - and their creations - suffer. And while cartoons may seem different from border to border, at their core they are the same stories, the same visions and the same artists, simply wishing to create their visions through the illusion of life through art. When one part of the body is sick and isn't treated, it slowly creeps its way throughout.
American animation being treated as a gimmicky sideshow for advertising and web-based series reminiscent of the "bottled pickles" of the 70's is slowly beginning to cripple cartoons big and small. Those who have innovated before us are starting to see it. And while times have changed, the one thing animators today have to learn from those before them is that the animation business is not easy. If animation is as powerful as its creators believed it were, it can triumph over greed, fear and soulless mass production like it has before.
In animation's young history, there has never been a more urgent time than now for the next generation of animation pioneers to follow in the fearless footsteps of its creators. While some are aware of this urgency, most never consider the dedication of animators and the imaginative worlds they have given to mankind. Their work will never fade, but time marches on, and as they pass on they leave a void. The digital age has made it easy to take for granted the work of animation past, and those times will likely never be re-lived. But if we listen to their words and take their spirit to heart, animation will thrive and live again in a new era.
- 1. Fuiji, Narita, Ledoux, Davis et al. Anime Interviews: The First Five Years of Animerica. Cadence Books, 1997.
- 2. Barrier, J. Michael. Hollywood Cartoons: American In Its Golden Age. Oxford University Press, 1999.
- 3. Beck, Jerry. Animation Art. Harper Collins, 2004.
- 4. Charles, Solomon. Enchanted Drawings: The History Of Animation. Knopf, 1989.
- 5. Lotman, Jeff. Animation Art: The Early years, 1911-1953. Schiffer, 1995.
- 6. Kelts, Ronald. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
- 7. "Anime's future world: Japanese filmmakers give the genre a hard look" Los Angeles Times. 28 Mar. 2005. C7
- 8. Sprang, K. "History of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse." Pagewise. <www.essortment.com/all/mickeym…>
- 9. Macdonald, Christopher. "Silly Otaku, Cartoons are for Kids." Anime News Network. 30 Oct. 2001. <www.animenewsnetwork.com/edito…>
- 10. Kenji, Saito. "Media in Asia." Kyoto Journal. 2001. <www.kyotojournal.org/media/ani…>