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Comments by John Cawley
May & June 2003

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6/29/03
Gods of Animation... Or False Profits?
Ren and Stimpy returned this week, and John Kricfalusi returned as a topic of conversation. It sparked a friend to relate about a past co-worker who had been with John on the original Ren and Stimpy. Upon hearing a group discuss Kricfalusi's work, the co-worker sincerely replied, "John is a god." That set me to thinking about other "gods of animation".

Animation gods are those who not only inspire others, but have a magnetism to members of the animation community. I'm not talking about fan favorites, though they some gods do have fan followings. These are the individuals that folks in the business will go out of the way to work for. A crew would work free (and some have) for these charismatic cartoonists.

For most of the first half century of animation, the closest the industry had to a god would have been Walt Disney. The stories were many about artists who felt they would have only truely made it when they worked at Disney. Most of the other studios tried to emulate Disney. True, some studios (such as Warners and UPA) revolted against Disney's style, but they did not usurp the power of Disney's dynasty. Walt's death in the sixties did not diminish the strength of his following. However it did leave a hole in the fabric as there was no individual to focus on.

That opening allowed for a new soul for creators to rally around. That soul was in the body of Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi burst on the scene with daring, risque animated projects that excited the newcomers, but mostly repulsed the old-timers. He promised a new coming in the age of animation and many signed on. The 1970s belonged to Bakshi and his rhetoric. His image became tarnished as years went by, promises went unfilled and film success dwindled. However, like any true leader, despite his flaws, Bakshi's followers continued to support him, and even promised to always return if he called.

The 1980s brought a new leader. Unlike Bakshi, who preached change, this new leader preached a return to classic values. He was Don Bluth. Like a many a leader, Bluth was actually part of the Disney dynasty. But when he saw the studio going down the wrong path (low budgets, lessening quality), he revolted and took his flock with him. His exit was like a ringing of the bell for those who loved the old Disney, but also felt they had been cheated. He was followed by many who would have worked for no pay. He brought new attention to animated features, videogames, and in one historic moment, knocked Disney out of first place in the box-office! His power was strong enough that followers traveled the world to be on Bluth's team. However, he too would be hounded by scandals, forgotten promises, and loss of prominence at the box-office.

With the 1990s, TV came back into it's own. Syndication and cable allowed for tremendous growth and experimentation. From this new land sprung an individual. He was a combination of both Bakshi and Bluth. His risque nature was blended with the artistic roots of Hanna-Barbera's golden TV era. However, unlike Bluth and Bakshi, who became reknown for their projects, Kricfalusi became famous for being fired! Like others, he had created a property that brought him a strong cult following. However, it was his dismissal from the studio over production problems that turned him into that most potent of all gods, a martyr! As the decade moved on, little was heard about his new work, but he became a beacon for all those who felt they had been wronged by the system.

But that was the last century. Of course Disney (or at least his company), Bakshi, Bluth and Kricfalusi are still around. Each is still popping up in the press and offering new projects. But none are breaking any ground. In fact, both Bluth and Kricfalusi's latest works are simply revivals of past successes. Even Disney is doing more sequels than new films.

Where is our new god? No doubt with the increasing emphasis of the internet, there is a chance he might come from there. Maybe an anime channel will offer our first god from the East? Or, horrors, as we move farther into a corporate world, the new god will be some corporation or machine or even software. (Makes me think about all those sci-fi tales where everyone worships a master computer.) Of course, with the diversity of communication, it may be impossible for another god to reach a large general audience. We may simply be heading into an era of local cults and smaller profits.



6/24/03
Doodle Development
As Summer starts, the networks are promoting their new shows for Summer and Fall. Considering the time and money spent in developing these shows, I'm always amazed at how one idea is picked over another... and even pitched.

In live action, development is an arduous task. Bibles and scripts are written. Actors are considered. Pilots are shot (and sometimes re-shot). Concepts are tested. Then, after a final labrynth of executives, focus groups, and advertisers pass judgement, a scant few are are chosen to actually get on the air.

In animation the process can be quite different. True, some shows have similar hurdles of bibles, scripts and pilots. And they almost all go through the focus groups. But since the advent of "creator driven" animation, animation development often falls not on the idea, not on the concept, but on a drawing. It is what I call "doodle development".

The cable networks are riddled with such series. The origin story is often the same. An artist arrives with portfolio in hand. Sometimes they come to pitch ideas, or just to look for work. An exec spots a drawing and faster than you can say "2d is dead", a series is sold. What could be more natural? After all, animation is an "art".

When it comes to looking for ideas in animation, execs just can't be bothered with all those messy words in a proposal, bible or script. Some studios will not accept a pitch without art. One studio development exec recently told a group of possible creators that if they didn't have time to put anything in writing, simply show the exec a drawing. That would be enough for the exec to instigate initial interest.

Now I won't argue that character design can be a major factor in the success of a property. I also won't say I know what art style will help a property take off. I doubt few think Beavis and Butthead's success was due to the art. The enormous diversity of direction animation art takes proves no one can truly predict it. However, when the art is rugged (think Beavis or even Bullwinkle), a show can still succeed on the strength of the writing and characters.

The number of beautifully animated features with faulty stories failing at the box office is large. Image over substance is not just in features. One need only remember such series as RUBIK'S CUBE. (Perhaps execs should suggest creators simply bring in a toy.)

The popularity of THE SIMPSONS, SHREK and FINDING NEMO, and the disappearance of TITAN A.E. and QUEST FOR CAMELOT reinforces that story and characters are what make for true success. The writing seems to be on the wall. Now if we can only get the animation execs to read it.



6/16/03
Why does Animation=Cartoon, but CGI doesn't?
A lot of the press on FINDING NEMO is amusing in an "I don't get it" context. Various media folks have been touting the film's blockbuster status, congratulating Pixar and Disney as they would the creators of any other hit movie. The media also points out how the critics have raved over the film.

What I "don't get" is that a decade ago, there was a totally different perspective. THE LION KING was the FINDING NEMO of its time. The film opened to enormous box-office and the continued success made it still the top grossing animated film in history. The film also received accolades from critics around the world. Howewever, upon it's huge opening gross (which, like NEMO, was far larger than expected) and subsequent box-office success, many media folks kept chiding it with comments like "don't folks know it's a cartoon?" or "pretty amazing for a cartoon".

Even with the (current) boom, animated features are still not common. Why is no one showing the same amazed reaction? Is it because since TOY STORY, we are getting accustomed to animated blockbusters? Or is it that the media (and even general public) does not consider FINDING NEMO a "cartoon"?

This possibility popped up when I was recently talking about the SPIDER-MAN movie. I told a fellow animation worker that the film didn't work for me because of all the animated shots of Spider-Man. This artist instantly "corrected" me by stating the Spider-Man character wasn't "animated", it "was done in cgi". Interesting. Roger Rabbit was an animated character in a live action film. Wouldn't one say that the Hulk was an animated character in a live action film?

It makes me wonder if we are now seeing a psychological divide or confusion between animated characters and cgi. Animated characters are still obviously "cartoons". Even though cgi stands for "computer generated image", the most common usage is as a description of computer animation. Note it is "computer animation", never "computer cartoon". And even though audiences love cartoons, somehow a cartoon never has the dignity of animation.

I now think this confusion in the public's mind can be used to the advantage of all animation productions. If the words "cartoon" and "animation" are no longer "hot", let's use the term that sells! For example, Dreamworks should proclaim their new SINBAD feature is "cgi". After all, it is created by a "cartoonist generated image".



6/9/03
Dreamworks remakes AMERICAN POP!
Well, not exactly.

Dreamworks has announced a new feature. The story, conceived by David Diamond, David Weissman (both of THE FAMILY MAN) and Jeffrey Katzenburg, is being kept under wraps. However, those talking are saying it will follow the life of an individual or family members through the history of rock and roll. The CGI feature will contain many classic rock songs.

For those not familiar with AMERICAN POP, it was produced by Ralph Bakshi in 1980 and followed the history of American music through an immigrant and his future generations as they lived in the music world. Music ranging from Duke Ellington to Jimmy Hendrix was utilized to show the evolution of the music scene. Though not a success at its release (as is the case with almost all Bakshi features), it has since gained some reputation as a unique view of music representing the time it is created in.

Though Dreamworks certainly pulled a classic out of their hat with SHREK, they still seem to be in the shadow of others when doing development. First was their ANTZ and Disney's BUG'S LIFE, then their ROAD TO EL DORADO and Disney's EMPIRE OF THE SUN (both South American dramas turned to comedies, Disney renaming theirs to THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE), and more recently their undersea SHARKSLAYER following on the heels of Disney's fish story FINDING NEMO.



6/6/03
FINDING NEMO gets $70+ Million Reward for Consistency
That the Disney/Pixar performed well is no surprise. That it performed so enormously well, is. In fact Disney had expected only around $30 million. For some this brings forth a cheer of joy. It proves, to them, that animation is not dead and can still succeed. For me it merely means we'll have to muddle through another half dozen buddy comedy cgi-films until some other trend shows up.

It is odd.

When I was working with Disney Feature Development in the mid-1980s, the execs felt the way to go was to move away from the standard fairy tale saga and move into two types of films. One was the contemporary musical, of which OLIVER AND COMPANY was a rough model. The other was the buddy comedy. I had been working on several concepts. One was close to getting a go when LITTLE MERMAID hit... and hit BIG! Suddenly all thoughts of contemporary musicals and buddy comedies were tossed out as anything that resembled fantasy musicals was put into development full steam. After a while, all I heard was how Disney was just churning out one fantasy musical after another, and "worse", so were the competitors from Dreamworks to Fox to Warner Bros.

It took around a decade for Pixar to follow Disney's early thought of buddy comedies. Of Course, for longer than I wish to admit, I've been pushing comedy animated features. After all, that is what most folks like about animation/cartoons. They make us laugh. However, now that this new pattern has emerged, where are all the critics of repetition? Now that every Pixar/Disney release is a smart-talking buddy film with heart, and every competitor (Dreamworks/SHREK, Fox/ICE AGE) is doing the same, why aren't these folks complaining?

Oh that's right, the complaints about musical fantasies didn't start up until the films began to stagger at the box office. No one complains about a trend when it's hot. Only when it's not. Well, FINDING NEMO will assure that no one will complain about the "one way street" of development going on in features until we have a few fumbles.



6/4/03
"That's three quotes? Add another quote and make it a gallon." - Groucho Marx
Another in a series of "great" quotes from the world of animation.
"Besides, who, but those of us in animation and kids under twelve want to watch animated programming when there's a war to absorb and worry over on CNN?" - Rita Street, Publisher/Editorial Director (Animation Magazine, April 2003)

Leave it to Animation Magazine to lessen the importance of animation. During times of crisis (ie war), the public historically turns to entertainment to lighten its spirit. This can even be seen with the recent "operation" (like Korea's "police action", Iraq was never officially a war) as comedy films at the boxoffice boomed. Perhaps the statement is merely a comment on those who would want to read about animated programming... at least the way it's covered in Animation Magazine.



6/1/03
Animation in Slo-Mo...
Maybe my world is just going faster, but it seems that animation has begun to go slower. The classic Warner Bros shorts began when directors like Avery and Clampett tossed conventional (aka real) timing out the window and mixed real time with a surreal speed of light timing. Not everyone could keep up with the pace, Jones still preferred to base his timing more on Laurel and Hardy than The Three Stooges.

During one of my visits with Moe Howard, an interviewer asked about the difference between Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. Without a beat, Moe stated both were great comedy teams. The big difference was in timing. Laurel and Hardy would exchange glances and subtle gestures and get a laugh. But, Moe continued, while Laurel and Hardy were getting that one laugh, The Stooges were getting six laughs.

With the advent of TV, Hanna-Barbera forsake their rocket timed Tom and Jerry's to the almost stand up comedy pace of Huckleberry Hound. However, H&B knew that by utilizing clever dialogue, strong posing and "planned" animation they could make just as entertaining cartoons. Which is just what they (and others Like Clampett's Beany & Cecil, Jay Ward's shows and the original Chipmunks) did. But as the decades passed, there was more and more pressure to get back to "classic" animation and speed.

While Disney TV, Warners TV and even H&B tried to move back into a fast paced style, one man brought the medium back to a stand still: John Krisfaluci. His Ren and Stimpy, taking a retro 50's H-B style, brought animation back to long holds, strong posing and an occasional burst of animation. Just as everyone had tried to ape Disney in the 30s, modern TV folks flocked around Kricfalusi's retro style.

Now, as I watch new animation, I see more and more of the slo-mo pacing. Lots of long takes, extreme close-ups, and grimacing faces. I know lots of industry folks love this "focus on the art", but I really miss the zippy timing, fresh writing and smooth animation of the Classics. Heck, even the original Scooby Doo seems to have more "animation pacing" than a lot of newer TV entries.


5/28/03
"That's three quotes? Add another quote and make it a gallon." - Groucho Marx
Another in a series of "great" quotes from the world of animation.
"Computer animation will give a new direct-to-video Care Bears adventure the cutting-edge 3-D look today's kids are used to and expect" - Glenn Ross, President of Family Home Entertainment (Video Store Magazine, April 27-May 3, 2003)

Wonderful. It's bad enough studio heads think there's only room for cgi. Now the home video world is falling in behind. And "behind" is just the word for such thinking. I honestly don't know if kids are "used to" cgi anymore than they are "used to" letterboxing. After all, lots of commercials and music videos utilize letterboxing, but most video experts insist on not letterboxing films due to kids alleged aversion to the format. Kids, like most folks, will like what they like. CGI will only be expected, if, as the Home Video market brushed aside laserdiscs and vhs-tapes, an industry forces it to be.



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