Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Road is Still Rocky

This is a follow-up to a 25 year old article that I posted here.

Some of the conditions from 25 years ago have changed. There's now a lot more coverage of animation in print than there was. Whatever your opinion of Animation Magazine, it has survived far longer than any fan effort. There's also Kidscreen, not devoted strictly to animation but giving it lots of coverage. The problem with both these magazines is that they're trade publications and trades make their money from advertising. What generally happens is that companies that take out ads get coverage. What the advertisers want to read about is what makes them money. That's product, not artists.

Of course, the web has proven a bonanza for animation news, criticism and history. It serves the animation community in ways that fanzines never could. It's far more immediate and democratic than print publishing could ever be.

Another thing that's changed is revivals. We all grew up loving something in animation and there was the urge to try and recreate what we loved the way Jim Steranko could do his version of Captain America. In the last 25 years, we've seen revivals of many Disney, Warner, Lantz, Famous and Fleischer characters. The results have been mixed, however. It's rare that a revival manages to capture the feel of the original. Attempts to update the original often lose whatever made it appealing in the first place. Personally, I've lost interest in revivals and generally think that they're a waste of time.

The separation between mainstream animation and independent animation is still there. If anything, mainstream animation is more commercial than it's ever been. The costs are so high that producers are afraid to take chances, so we get rehashes of anything that's made money.

The comics field developed the graphic novel as an alternative to super-hero comics and the importation of manga has blown the comics business wide open. What used to be the mainstream is now just one stream of many. I wish that something similar would happen in the animation business and I have (remote?) hopes that the web may provide a viable market for animated alternatives.

And that brings me to my main complaint of the last 25 years. Animation as an industry is not particularly creator-friendly. There was a time in the '90's when it looked like creator driven animation was making gains in features and TV, but the successful creators of that time period are not dominating the business now and neither is anybody else. Pixar's directors have inherited the position held by Disney's directors in the '90's, but it seems to me that directors at other studios (with the possible exception of Blue Sky) are not dominating their films in the same way. In TV, there are generally fewer hits (a consequence of the long tail) and there are no TV animation creators who have a major buzz.

I've been close enough to the TV industry to see that it's a closed system run by producers and broadcasters. Many people jump from one side to the other repeatedly. The audience is only visible as a rating and creators are simply raw material to be mined until the vein taps out.

The generation that entered the business in the '70's and '80's is closing in on the end of its professional road. They've had major accomplishments. Full animation came back. Animated features became profitable and multiplied. Some TV series helped shape the culture. But the generation failed to establish a beach head for artists. Where are animation's versions of Martin Scorcese, Spike Lee, John Sayles, etc? Where are writers who are the equivalent of Robert Towne, Charlie Kaufman or Paul Haggis? Where is the American/Canadian/European Miyazaki? Good personal animated films have been made, but they haven't changed the field like graphic novels have changed comics or independent films have changed live action. That's a tragedy.

I'm not blaming the artists. I know first-hand that the structure of the animation business is unyielding. I merely point out that while many things have changed in the last 25 years, the most important things have not.


Cooked Art said...

I completely agree with your comment about animation writing. I just don't see anywhere near the frank originality or freshness that you see in Charlie Kaufman's or Wes Anderson's films. My supposition is that while Kaufman writes and the director works to get that his vision of that screenplay up on the screen in live action, the animation field's screenplays are made by committee and also are fraught with meddling from above.

Thanks for the great post Mark!

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I agree. I think a big reason is the tendency to write films as a team instead of as a person. I don't think we've got enough egos either. I'm not talking about ego as in thinking and saying you're the best, but as in the confidence to do things your way. There's almost no-one who throws away the lessons taught by the Nine Old Men, or whatever. While writers like Charlie Kaufman or Paul Thomas Anderson do exactly that... throw away all Hollywood, and just make it about them.
Too many students are learning about story because of what animation has been, instead of what it could be. And no writers outside animation realize the potential and freedom animation could give them. The animation world is too split off of the film world.

Sadly enough, I think by doing this we're throwing away a major advantage of animation. Remember how Scott McCloud explained how with a cartoon style the audience "becomes" the character, while the audience observes with realistic images? Often, we're ABUSING that to tell dull/overly universal/overly simple stories. Instead of USING it, which is what is done in for example one of my favorite animated films, Takahata's Omohide poro poro. The film *could* have been done as a liveaction film, but the feeling you'd get out of it would be different. Just because it's much more about you than about Taeko than it would be in a liveaction version.