Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Upside and Downside of Influences

When a baby goose hatches, it starts following the first moving thing it sees.  As that is usually its mother, instinct serves it well.

People don't have an instinct that strong, but from around the ages of 5 to 20, humans are deeply influenced by what's around them.  Sometimes these influences cause an ignition moment; a person sees someone or something and suddenly knows the path to take.  I'm old enough to remember the first appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and my classmates were utterly transformed by the event.  I'd love to know how many guitars were sold in the weeks after that appearance.

Even when an influence isn't instantaneous, it still shapes shapes a person.  The things you are exposed to during your impressionable years contribute to who you are.  As they say, the child is father to the man. 

There's a strong emotional component to being influenced at that age.  The emotions generated by the things one likes cement their influence on you.  While I have seen many good movies since my twenties, few have the emotional impact that films I discovered as a teenager had.  When you reach maturity, something happens to how you respond; the impact is not as great. 

Creative people are formed during that 15 year period.  It's why you can look at the mass culture of any decade and find that it's distinctive.  It's because the people creating during that period grew up with the same influences.  While they don't reproduce those influences exactly, they shape the work in similar ways.

The emotional affection for something in its simplest form results in nostalgia.  It's fun to share childhood memories with someone the same age.  There's a pleasure to re-experiencing something you loved when younger.    The original emotional is evoked.  That's why there are oldies stations on the radio, even though the decade(s) they feature are constantly advancing with the age of the listening audience.  Good luck finding an oldies station playing '50s rock and roll now.

The emotional attachment to the things that formed us have repercussions for creators.  It's why animation studios and broadcasters hunt for young talent.  That talent is closest in age to the audience, so it shares more of the same influences.  Those people are often inexperienced in the ways of production, but studios think it's a worthwhile risk.  Production smarts can be bought more easily than an emotional link to the audience. 

It also means that everyone who is creative is in danger of losing the audience over time.  As media content shifts, creators often can't shift with it.  Because newer approaches rarely evoke the emotional response of the work they grew up on, staying current often produces a superficial result.  It apes the surface but can't connect to the core; it lacks sincerity. 

This has become very obvious to me recently.  I mentioned to one of my classes that I haven't really watched TV animation in 20 years, though I've stayed reasonably up to date with animated features.  Partly this is because I know first hand the limitations of TV budgets and schedules and when I watch TV animation all I see are the compromises and shortcuts.  The bigger issue is that I'm past the age where I can emotionally connect with shows aimed at children or teens.  The influences that formed the people making these shows are alien to me.  While my students may love Gravity Falls or Steven Universe, I'm never going to love them in the way that I love Chuck Jones or even Bosko cartoons, something I admit have little absolute value.  While I admire the work of Miyazaki, Takahata and Kon, I'm betting that younger people exposed to their work love it in a way that I can't.

(One of the oddities of growing up in the early TV era is that my generation was exposed to older work our parents grew up on: theatrical cartoons, the Marx Brothers, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and The Little Rascals.  This  proves that the work that influences you doesn't have to be contemporary, only that you experience it during your impressionable years.)

Twenty years from now my current students will discover that they're estranged from the younger people entering the field as they won't have the same influences.  Agism in the media is very real, and this is the root of it.  The gap between creators and the audience results from a difference of influences and the less common ground that creators share with the audience, the harder it is to connect.  Steven Spielberg's latest films are no longer the events they once were, and Spielberg is as audience-wise as anybody.  And I suspect that when we reach the point where young adults no longer grew up on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, I'm guessing that the desire to make drawn animated features will be a lot less widespread.

While we are less instinctual than goslings, we may also be less flexible. Goslings eventually move beyond their mothers, but do any of us escape our childhood influences?


Matthew said...

Very interesting meditations on influences & culture Mark. Interesting, but Depressing. Nothing Lasts except the fact that Nothing Lasts. "Oh well"...

Maybe you could write an expansion leading on for this post about cultural recycling, revivals, re-boots & franchises, from the perspective of influences and how the can last (for a time), and IF it is a good thing that the do linger on in the form of re-boots, often devoid of the initial aspects that once made them cherished to those who grew up with the launch of the "original" creation.

Anonymous said...

Having just read your post,I feel the need to write back to you.I'm glad in the fact that you instruct future generations that watch "Gravity Falls"&"Johnny Test".The principals of animation are the key to springboard into this wonderous expression from simply sketching the teachings of your first ball bounce to your final walk cycle.
Having said this,i'm now taking a page off of you.I've recently graduated in the fall of '14 in 2D/3D animation.That page i'm borrowing is that i'm 43 yrs young.I remember Saturday mornings(only time you could watch cartoons)Looney Tunes,Rocket Robin Hood,Spiderman and Disney (Sunday after supper).I'm thinking that you sound like you feel the need of nostalgia.Look to any media these days and it's pretty much all a re-do.That's all in the story telling.The animation practices and processes are completely different from pencil to paper.Flash and Toon Boom allow this in such a way we couldn't imagine possible.
It seems to me that you have lost something along the way.I sincerely hope you get your passion back because you might be turning into what you didn't want to become.Outdated.You sound like the old man shaking your fist to get off the lawn when what you really should be doing is talking to a kid.I don't mean a student;actual children that still have that innocence and wonderment that don't lie.
In conclusion,thank-you for letting me do this because my instructor was only a yr. older than me and although he awoke my brain to allow me to become an artist(cliche but true)he also sounds alot like yourself and that's not right.Don't basically tell people what you think through what your journey has transpired;tell the kids straight up what is in store for them after they leave.It's cut -throat because its such a specific skill set and be prepared to work as a group if you want to make it.Positive will always trump negative.Superhero vs. Villain.That's why I love it and always will.

Mark Mayerson said...

It's possible I didn't make myself clear. I am not nostalgic, pining for the good old days of Bosko cartoons. The world keeps changing and what I was trying to say is that I suspect there are biological limits as to how much an individual can change with it.

Past a certain age, it's hard for anything to influence you as it might have when you were younger than 20. That was my point, not that things were better before. And since I've spent most of my life being older than 20, I cannot see the world the way my students do. Parents generally can't see the world the way their children do, even when those children become adults.

Maybe you don't see it this way. Maybe I'm different, but my own perception is all I've got to go on.

tilcheff said...

@ Anonymos

It's fine to post anonymously on the Internet.
But it's even better when you express a strong opinion to sign it with your name. This simple fact, your real name, gives weight to your thoughts.

I was not intending to comment under Mark's article, but was really impressed by it and have already sent the link to a few friends who might find it interesting too.

Personally I will strongly disagree with your interpretations of the text.
My feeling is that Mark has nailed it.

But then... we look from different angles. We're the same age, but I have 20+ years as an animation professional, 4 of them (not the last 4) as a very successful teacher in Drawing fundamentals, Character Design and Animation principles (not principals).

I don't doubt your good intentions, but you have written a hodgepodge of a comment under a very insightful and brilliant post.

@ Mark

Thanks for writing this, Mark!
I see it in exactly the same way.
My emotional attachment and personal experiences match yours. (Only the decades differ.)
And I have observed these same trends in the industry and society.

I have had the conclusions you draw, vaguely floating in my thoughts, but your post really put things into their places!

Anonymous said...

Very insightful post. I didn't take it to mean "everything today stinks". And I think Mark's post is very clear- he's not intending that. This post is an examination of nostalgia, memory, and how that effects us, as we age. It's an honest examination of what it means to grow older, and to have the maturity to stand outside yourself and observe.

JPilot said...

Hey Mark,

Here is what I got from your text. As a professional ages, he/she becomes disconnected with the current tastes of the 17 to 34 age demographic that is coveted by advertisers. Therefore, they are less desirable to employers.

I watched the Frontline documentary "Generation Like" from November 2014, it's on Netflix. Shows you what the up and coming generation is really into.

Sheridan and other schools may want to adjust their curriculum for the upcoming students just a few years down the road.

Stephen Worth said...

I worked for the last couple of years on Bravest Warriors supporting Breehn Burns and now I am working on Bee and Puppycat supporting Natasha Allegri. I am a producer, so it isn't my place to make creative decisions. I have been a professional for over 25 years. I see the same energy being put into animation today that I saw 25 years ago. And I have to say that the passion for the medium is MUCH greater than I saw working in cartoons in the 80s. I have nostalgia for the cartoons I watched as a kid, but to I see anything to learn and apply to what I do today in The Mighty Hercules or the Translux Felix the Cats? Hell no. Let that shit die. Make something new that relates to the modern world. Learn techniques from the classics like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, but there is absolutely no reason today to do a wartime rationing gag or have a character sit down and play the piano while flowers dance today. Make something real. Bakshi is the model students should follow. He has complete knowledge of where cartooning came from, but he tells stories and makes gags that are REAL.

Stephen Worth said...

Use classic technique to tell contemporary stories.

Anonymous said...

I think I'll always prefer the timing style of anime to western cartoons because that's a lot of what I watched in my formative years. The asian students at Sheridan also really get that, while kids who grew up on Disney and didn't watch much anime have a hard time relating. It's cool when, in a medium like animation that involves so many people, the inspirations can merge. The french have a done a lot of great stuff that looks a little Disney and a little anime. Especially the films from Gobelins.