Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Past and the Future

Sheridan student Andrew Murray interned this summer at Ireland's Cartoon Saloon. While in Ireland, Andrew saw Bugs Bunny on Broadway, where Warner Bros. cartoons are accompanied by a live orchestra. While this production is not new, Andrew's experiences while watching it caused him to think about the future of drawn animation. Here are his thoughts:
I was in Dublin this weekend and saw Bugs Bunny on Broadway and I just wanted to share my experience regarding it. Because I was blown away by its reception. I wasnt sure what to expect but the show was sold out and litterally every age group was there. Where I was sitting, to my left there were a group of 90 year old women and my right, there was a family whose kids were in their 20s. Smaller kids were there and just adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s were out on dates and of course the single people like me.

But what was amazing was how well received these shorts were. They played Baton Bunny, Feed the Kitty, kill da wabbit ( I cant recall the proper titles of each short), The High Note, even a Bob Clampett short among all the Jones cartoons. But as I looked around, everyone had this HUGE grin on their faces during the show, and people were laughing their heads off. When the March of the Valkrie's started to play you heard the audience mumbling 'Kill Da Wabbit'. and to see that happening it was a real eye opener regarding animation. For the past 4 years I've heard nothing but "where is animation going? what will happen to 2-D?" and last night I was shown that people still really love these shorts. So much so that they came out in droves of all ages to watch them with a live orchestra.

Now Im not going to have the answer as to what the fate will be with 2-D animation but to see the audience react the way they did was amazing and I guess there shouldn't be any concern regarding the fate of Cartoons but perhaps there should be other avenues explored as to how to present them. Those Looney Tunes and MerrieMelodies were really meant to be shown like that with an orchestra. It has such an impact on people.
In a follow up message, Andrew added:
I forgot to mention this before, but as I left, there was a line up to get to the front door and I quote this, because there was a mother asking her son who was about 7ish, how he liked the show and he responded with, "that was the best 2 hours of my life."
I think there are a lot of conclusions to be drawn from this, and not all of them will be popular. The first is that people came out for this because they knew what they would be getting. It was a pre-sold product. While animation professionals and fans have complained about the proliferation of sequels or how The Princess and the Frog looks old fashioned, the fact is that people often like to know what they're buying in advance. A sequel or a straight-down-the-middle Disney feature is a known quantity and these things have a measurable audience.

Nostalgia also plays a part. The Warner Bros. cartoons shown were about 50 years old or more, so for any adult in the audience, it was a chance to revisit a childhood favourite. Just as Disney's Cinderella appealed to adults in 1950 who had seen Snow White as children, The Princess and the Frog will appeal to adults who saw Beauty and the Beast when they were younger.

You could argue that what brought the people to Bugs Bunny on Broadway was the quality of the animation and music. While they are both excellent, I think it misses a larger point. The success of shows like Family Guy and South Park proves that production values are not what audiences primarily respond to. What they respond to is entertainment. Just as one funny person on a bare stage can entertain an audience, so can a good script and soundtrack accompanied by crude visuals.

What distinguishes the Warner Bros. cartoons is their use of funny drawings, funny motion and sophisticated music as their means of communication, but they are not the be-all and end-all of their appeal. The characters, the gags and the dialogue come before anything else and if those things are not working, production values are not going to save them. There are Harman-Ising and Disney shorts that have far more lavish visuals than the Warner Bros. cartoons and music tracks that are the equal of the Warner shorts, but these cartoons are dull and nobody is hiring live orchestras to accompany them.

Animation artists (and especially animation managements) often can't see the forest for the trees. They confuse the motion, the colour, and the music with what entertains audiences. Bugs Bunny on Broadway proves that an audience will still respond to those things when they're in the service of entertaining characters and stories. There's nothing wrong with drawn animation as a medium, so long as film makers understand that entertainment comes first. Craft is no substitute for content.


Harvey Deneroff said...

Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the success of Bugs Bunny on Broadway is that we should bring back silent movies (accompanied, of course, by symphony orchestras).

Thad said...

So how do we get product like Looney Tunes again, where we don't have to choose one or the other? Why does artful animation always take a backseat?

While South Park is often hilarious without being a meandering ink and paint sitcom, there is not a thing to recommend it on the art-end. Family Guy is sophomoric garbage, so I can't explain its popularity, especially when it was scorned for what it was when it got canceled. (Don't even bring up King of the Hill, whenever I am able to (barely) get past the shitty drawing and animation, I don't see anything Andy Griffith didn't do better.)

It's true that the average joes don't care about the animation, but why is this used as an excuse for doing bad, formulaic animation, and not as an excuse to try to be more experimental in the animation and acting department since the joes won't notice if some of these experiments are failures?

stevef said...

You make a great point, Thad. But I'll bet somebody was saying the same thing back in 1961 about "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and "The Flintstones." Why can't the production values be better? Because the producers have to accept the low budgets the networks offer and make the best of it. At least they got it on the air.

Thad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J Lee said...

A lot of this boils down to the elements of both how the director handles the story and the story itself, which in turn leads to the problems Disney had with its 2-D features, post Lion King, versus the success of Pixar's 3-D films starting with Toy Story. Warners had great directors, but it wouldn't have been the same if they also didn't have a great story department.

What Pixar understood is that you can have the most wonderful animation in the world (as many of the Disney shorts of the 40s and 50s did), but if the story it's set upon is dull, contrived and/or uninteresting, it's not going to hold people's attention. What Pixar hasn't done to screw things up over the past decade is to think that their success is based on the 3-D medium of CGI itself, and they can roll out any boilerplate 90 minute plot and still make $200 million.

Disney forgot that, starting with "Pocahontas", where the idea seems to have become as much to teach a message as it was to entertain. They seemed to think that with their string of successes, they could toss any piece of hand-drawn work out there and the audiences would come, and then the compounded that by learning the wrong message, which wasn't that story and character development is the foundation any animated film has to rest on, but that everyone wants to see CGI movies, and nobody wants to watch 2-D films anymore.

Combined with the cheaper production costs for 3-D, it resulted in a series of crapy GCI productions, that only in the past 18 months or so seems to have come around (for the most part) to Hollywood realizing you aren't going to make money with a CGI movie just because it's CGI. Hopefully, "Princess" will show them the other side, that if you have a decent story, you can still make a pile of bucks in the 2-D format.

Mr. Semaj said...

We had a Mickey Mouse presentation this past April, which was attended by a fair number of people. Though I'm sure most had already seen Mickey many times on The Wonderful World of Disney, The Disney Channel, VHS, DVD, and presently YouTube, many still showed up with their Mickey Mouse clothes and hats (which I would've done if I had remembered) to watch some old time favorites. The audience particularly seemed to enjoy "The Band Concert".

In an era where classic cartoons aren't getting much attention outside DVD releases, people were still able to attend a celebration of Mickey's 80th Birthday.

Family Guy is sophomoric garbage, so I can't explain its popularity, especially when it was scorned for what it was when it got canceled.

FOX had a knack for taking away shows before they had a chance to find an audience (via poor, inconsistent time slots and lack of advertising). Futurama suffered the same fate around the same time as FG.