Jun 17, 2006

A short rant on mediocrity

NOT mediocre

I don't watch much television on a regularly scheduled basis, and almost no animated television at all.
Just a moment ago I happened to channel surf past an apparently new cartoon show. It looked astonishingly ugly, but art direction aside, what really struck me and had me zap the TV off in disgust was the scenario I was presented with: a dinner table scene. Yes, another one. Mom, Dad and sons are sitting at the table, having that sort of family time that makes me wonder who the writers and "creators" are. Did they grow up in the 1930s? Because the idea of presenting a modern "dad" in a tie at dinner, and "mom" in a flowery dress, batting her eyelashes, sporting a hairdo from approximately 1953 is so old it's dead, edges molding and about as funny as current events in the middle east.

When Brad Bird spoofed the nuclear family in the early 1980s with his "Family Dog", it was fresh and inventive, and most importantly it was funny. The audience--mere laymen along with we, the animation folk of the world, cheered and laughed our keesters off because it was so well observed. I'm not saying that it's impossible to continue to make comedy-animation hay out of the old paradigm of The American Family, but man, by now, 2006, it's got to be clever, it's got to be good--it's got to be real on some level. These aren't real in any way, shape or form, and they don't supply anything to fill the resulting gaps; no flights of weirdness that stems from anything approaching originality. Only a retread of a fantasy of a family experience that none of the creators actually had.

These shows, dozens of them, repeat and recycle the same dull old stereotypes, barely tweaking the "edgy" and utterly superficial design of the ciphers that stand in for characters. Watching it makes me feel faintly queasy--for the wasted talent I know is involved on the roster; for the disposability of such fare, filling up commercial time on the airwaves, all with a feeling of the old linguini-on-the-wall approach: let's see what sticks. Virtually none of it does.

Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows I love good design and ideas, just like everyone else---and I'm no snob when it comes to where and how it presents itself. I've always believed a good show could be achieved with tongue depressors--those flat wooden sticks--as characters, with the right story and execution.
But why do so few animated TV shows of the last 3 decades have any staying power? Why has our generation so far produced not a single inarguable classic along the lines of those that crowded the holiday schedules of the early-to-mid 1960s? "The Grinch", "A Charlie Brown Christmas", "Rudolph", any of the Rankin-Bass output in 2D and 3D--hell, even the original "Fat Albert", which I remember watching with my mouth hanging open. That was something else again.

And in the last 25 years we've seen...."Family Dog". One producer took a chance on a relatively unknown team of artists...Spielberg. It was a cause celebre.

With the range of talent that's now at the peak of their game and experience there's really no excuse for yet more shows that reflect a supposed "parody" of a never-never land of 1950s family life. It's OVER. Dead! We're ALL hep to it now, people! Even the tiny little kids! It's lame, it doesn't reflect anyone's real lives and it's meaningless.

I don't blame artists for this. They don't wield the checkbook. I simply feel sad and(obviously) a little perturbed that there aren't people in charge with...different tastes. Perhaps it's the overall corporatization of all media that makes taking a flying chance on an individual's unique idea for a show impossible.

still aired and loved after 40 years

I did see a HBO special made for the holiday season some years back--a compilation of short musical pieces done by animation studios all over the world(it may have been titled "'Twas the Night")...it was beautiful, funny in the right places, and honest. There's one segment that has a rabbit sailing a boat in side a snowglobe, gorgeous animation done to the old soundtrack of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"; the damn thing made me cry. Obviously all shows can't be like that, certainly not all series television, but my god, let's please try for some change. Things have sailed so far over the edge of genuine, heartfelt, new ideas that it'll require a herculean effort to pull them back.

And someone with lots of cash.


Anonymous said...

The piece you're talking about from "Twas The Night" was animated by Maciek Albrecht. He did two other pieces for the show: Feliz Navidad (an animated Xmas card) and "The Christmas Song" (which I thought the best animated piece of that year). I did a "Night Before Xmas" segment animating some paintings by Grandma Moses.
Sheila Nevins of HBO has impeccable taste and gets a lot out of those who work with her.

C.Edwards said...

Why has our generation so far produced not a single classic, along the lines of those that crowded the holiday schedules of the early-to-mid 1960s? "The Grinch", "A Charlie Brown Christmas", "Rudolph"...

That is one great question, I wish I had the answer.

I often ask "Where is all the original, sincere animation?" Some people have pointed out "Adult Swim" and it's original programming. But I'm talking about shows that elevate storytelling in animation, not just parody and lampoon the conventions of classic programming. "Family Dog" and "The Simpsons" elevated the craft, as well as a handful of features in the last twenty years. But not much else. It's unfortunate.

Anonymous said...

"...There's really no excuse for yet more shows that reflect a supposed 'parody' of a never-never land of 1950s family life. It's OVER."
Thanks for saying what has so long needed to be said.
I would respectfully state that the sheer number of these Stepford cliches-cum-parodies may owe less to FAMILY DOG than to REN & STIMPY, with its spoof 1950s mom and dad (the "Pipes") in a number of episodes. So great was STIMPY's influence that the cliché returned "for real": that is, the conventional wisdom became that in a modern cartoon, these images of family life were what you used. COW & CHICKEN, FREAKAZOID, DARIA, FAIRLY ODDPARENTS, and on and on: it's not just a question of how many cartoons per se invoked these 1950s "norms," but how many otherwise *good* cartoon series included them and were dragged down by them, each naively treating the "spoof" as if it were a new and clever concept. From parody to paradigm.
From cartoons, it must be noted, the images spread to modern American family movies. Watch an AIR BUD film, or the live-action segments of Warners' CATS AND DOGS, and tell me that the 1950s ever ended. Is it much of a surprise that these movies are dead on arrival in the foreign market? They'd be DOA in our own, too, were they allowed to have any competition.
Frankly, it appears that the initially satiric revival of 1950s cartoon convention was folded, minus the satire, into a larger post-1995 push by the mainstream media to reassert reactionary societal mores.
Ironically, given many of John K's recent public statements about gender, it would seem he'd actually be pleased. I'd love to be proven otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Jenny, your ranting sounds so much like Brad's ranting back in '86, it's positively eerie. Brad even had T-shirts made up for the "Family Dog" crew with "Die, Mediocrity, Die!" emblazoned on the back.

Anonymous said...

If the Mr. Hankie Christmas Special from South Park is not a classic, then I don't know what is. :) Or the more recent Woodland Critter Christmas episode.

You need to watch more animated TV shows, I guess. Watch some Samurai Jack. Catch an Invader Zim episode. Rent the original Batman animated series from the Dini/Timm team.

Jenny Lerew said...

Guys and gals, thanks for the feedback.

First, Anonymous: I had the same thought you did, many hours after writing: "well, how can I make claims about animated TV if I also say I never watch any of it?" But of course, that's not strictly true...and there are series that obviously deliver quite a bit. I'd never put "Batman" or any of the Bruce Timm-produced work in the category I was incensed about. Nor "Simpsons", nor "South Park". Those three are in another class of program to me altogther--me personally, anyway.

I was thinking of a very particular type of pervasive "cartoon"...and those, I have tried to watch as I did yesterday. Give them a chance. Again, it's a hugely personal reaction(and don't think I don't know that for many of these series, someone likes them--a lot), but I am so struck by the thick hard edges--literally and figuratively--around these cartoons. They're all talk, in the first place. It might be something kind of interesting, but no--it's the same sorts of funny voices posing as "mom" and dad", the same old adenoidal kids-who-are-not-kids...it's got to stop! ; )

There are a few series shows that approach being beautiful(and I know who's responsible for that), but even many of those are talktalktalk--I like dialogue, I've written it, you can see I'm a verbose character myself! But it's all in what you say, how and where and in what the heck the story is about.
I've worked in television, know the struggle in how it's made, and in my experience many of the animation artists working on it feel the same way.
And perhaps, thinking it over, I'm not playing fair when I veer from series TV to great stand-alone specials like the Melendez Charle Browns...but I believe that the "style" that (for me) ruins the feel of some of the current series is a barrier to getting those kinds of different specials made, too.

Jenny Lerew said...

Michael--I loved your segment! That was shown not long ago on HBO again(in the middle of the night--Christmas in June!), and I grabbed a bit of it on Tivo.

All of those were superlative; even the live action was so well edited, so genuine...those kids! And for anyone to reuse "What a Wonderful World"(which, as beautiful a piece as it is, has been used to the nth degree in films & TV)so brilliantly, with those particular kids as a visual...

I tried to see the credits and they were hard to read(for me); wasn't at least one of the studios--perhaps Maciek--in the UK? I'm not kidding: I bow down to that producer...Sheila Nevins--isn't she in charge of all programming? Is she that hands-on with one shot specials? HBO just wows me(now, there's an original thought).
I'd love to really bang a drum for that piece...ask her--well, I'll ask you: how did they go about commissioning that? Can you imagine of that sort of animation was broadcast on a regular basis?
Before I die, I want to work on something like that...a "small" piece that's moving art. Here's hoping.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the TV series Pocoyo? It's made in Spain, but is a co-production with the UK. The cg characters don't talk, but there's a narrator. It's aimed at a very young audience, but it's got lots of adult admirers (including me!). I think it's terrific - at least one example of good TV animation today:

(Great blog, by the way!)

Unknown said...

I second Josh's Pocoyo comment. It's a lovely little show, although not really in the same mould as those discussed in this post.

I would also encourage you to seek out, Neville Astley and Mark Baker's "The Big Knights", made for the BBC a few years ago. It's tough to get hold of at the moment, but you won't regret finding it, I promise!


You have a great blog here, Jenny. I really enjoy reading it.

Anonymous said...

Even a feature like "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" was more honest, sincere, and innovative than a majority of the animated features since. Simple, but not simplistic. And FUNNY.

What a shame CBS Home Video released it on DVD recently in an incorrect aspect ratio. It's been very badly formatted. But it's likely the only version ever to be released...

A lot of people point the the wretched "Roger Rabbit" as the re-startup of the "animation rennaisance." To a greater degree, this was accomplshed by the far superior "Little Mermaid." But in both cases, they were only the ones that got major media attention.

As cliched and horribly written as it is, the intent behind even a minor film like "Secret of NIMH" deserves SOME respect for trying to push boundaries. What a shame it focused on things other than great characters or good storytelling.

By contrast, a film like "Brave Little Toaster" DID focus on characters. While no groundbreaking film, this, along with the aforementioned "Family Dog" episode of Amazing Stories, are the 2 films that truly jumpstarted the industry. Followed closely on the heels by 'The Simpsons." Shows like Ren and Stimpy and Animaniacs clearly aimed at adolescents, are sometimes funny and fun to look at, but are rarely as observant as films like "Family Dog." I like these shows, but they don't resonate the same way.

Anyone remember the TV specials "Ziggy's Gift" or "Carlton, Your Doorman?"

Jenny Lerew said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jenny Lerew said...

Anonymous, "Ziggy's Gift"--which I've never seen but have heard an awful lot about--had a plethora of top talents working on it...it's seminal for that reason alone. Talk about a dry spell, when that was aired...

I have to agree with your comments about almost everything; I give "Mermaid" full credit for being able to work gainfully in animation now, 20 years(!)later--it was that important a watershed in our industry. While there've obviously been fallow periods of downturn since, things have never yet gone back the other way, to pre-Mermaid attitudes about feature animation(and coincidentally, any animation). Those were heady times.
And "Toaster"! That project kept a lot of brilliant guys employed, people you'd never dream would ever be out of work, but found little to do that suited them in the early 80s--so they managed to do their own thing, often together: Joe Ranft, Chris Buck, Mike Giaimo. All, btw, were our teachers at Calarts, along with Dan Hansen(working at Disney FA then)! Talk about lucky timing for us.
"Toaster" was modest by today's standards, but these were baby steps by guys who were just starting to get their sea legs really going. And it DID focus on characters. I'm glad you brought it up

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1 hit the nail on the head by stating that cartoons these days are "without the satire" of the seminal works that inspired them. It's the same difference between, say, the original "Animal House" movie and all the inferior Hollywood studio clones of it. The original film, made by Harvard Lampoon/National Lampoon people before they lost it creatively, had an us-versus-them conflict at its core, which drove the satire home. It was the morally right college kids up against the utterly corrupt college administration and town council. Not an original formula - it's heroic comedy, on display in the best Marx Bros. pictures and later used by the likes of Bugs Bunny and Sid Caesar. You almost never see heroic comedy today because it's harder to write than bumbling protagonist comedy. Corporate America doesn't trust it so they say they don't get it. Virtually every clone of "Animal House" reworked the original film's concept into "just a bunch of wacky, zany kids having fun." Satire is a mix of truth and anger. Hollywood, whether in live action or animation, wants neither because it might cause the audience to question authority. And the first query would be "what the hell am I doin' with all these major media franchise character t-shirts?" BTW, I notice you didn't cite the sad Family Dog series. Even the storied producer you cite and for whom you work missed the boat big time on that one. He didn't realize that Brad Bird's picture worked because Brad himself was involved or that the original "Family Dog" carefully animated and assisted animation, done in this country couldn't be replicated by the likes of Nelvana using lowball Taiwanese hack shops. The design was simple but it required great animation with greater subtlety to pull off, not unlike Dick Williams 1981 "Ziggy" project. All the ADR and all the king's men could not fix the "Family Dog" TV series, even though they tried to do just that, using a phalanx of then-cutting edge highly paid TV cartoon writers. An entire warehouse of "Family Dog" merchandise perished unsold when the project tanked on television, having ultimately gone south without its creator. Brad got screwed by the big boys for decades and richly deserves any success he gets at this point. I'm glad to see him sticking it to them now, as they scramble to try and lamely rip him off. You know what I'm talking about - you see and hear it every day.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

Maybe it's irrelevant, but you didn't mention the series version of FAMILY DOG that premiered a few years after the AMAZING STORIES episode. It was worse than mediocre. I think every episode had to be sent back to Korea for dozens of corrections, and the show's premiere was delayed a whole year. It was burned off without promotion by CBS in the summer, and Bird said he was glad the series passed quickly into obscurity.

Anonymous said...

The anonymous posters above me mentioned something I was about to bring up - as far as I knew, Family Dog was a CBS evening cartoon, not just a Brad Bird special. I remember watching it, and I also remember HATING IT. I was a kid back then, and I think it only lasted two weeks.

Fewer people seem to know that there was a videogame based upon the series. It was programmed by Imagineering, a New Jersey software designer who made games for LJN, THQ (not the same THQ as now) and Acclaim back in the 80's and 90's. They specialized on awful licensed games which had horrible controls.

// Dave Silva
// http://vice.parodius.com/

Jenny Lerew said...

There was a "Family Dog" series, which was in production about 1990-91. It had some very talented people(I mean top people)involved, but it wasn't a success.
It's notoriously difficult to start up an animated series from scratch, especially an ambitious one for prime-time, with lots of pressure, little time or wiggle room, no learning curve for a green staff, overseas animation studios to deal with and not least the onus of making a clever, one-shot special into something that could sustain 12 half hour episodes. I didn't work on it, but know people who did and my impression is that it was an honorable misfire. Happily, most if not all of the artists involved quickly went on to work on more successful films and shows.

Frank said...

I agree that alot of the charm has long since gone from animation today. i agree with jenny's assesment that the money is just not going in the right places.

however, here's one thing to think about. we look at those cartoons from our youth and gloss it over with nostalgia. we kind of put it up on an untouchable pedestle. i think that there are shorts and some select series airing now that WILL be the same to those kids of today who will eventually grow up and lead the industry.

great blog!

Jenny Lerew said...

I received a long, extremely well-written and cogent comment from another 'anonymous' this morning, but for reasons I wish I could explain but I think he or she will know is evident, I can't post it all here. Suffice to say he knows a lot of details about the "Family Dog series.
I did want to post this part of the comment:

"One question, though: How many current directors of TV animation have any say (or complete control) over the soundtrack? Dialog, music, sound effects, and the timing of these?"

Good question. It may be intended to be rhetorical, but if not the answer is--I don't know. I haven't directed or really done much work for TV since 1994. Obviously things have changed a lot since then, but even in that stone age of TV cartoons every studio did things differently, and likely still does.
In features the answer to the above question is "Everything".
But because of the way I know it used to work, I would never hold any artist responsible for the shortcomings of a TV show...not to suggest that they'd never be responsible--I just know that often their hands are tied. It's probably different with the one-shot cartoons Fred Seibert does.

the doodlers said...

Great post, Jennie. The struggle to rise above mediocre storytelling in Television animation goes on and on... Ward Jenkins was discussing this same sort of thing regarding feature sequels a few posts ago.

I'd say most of us in the animation business do what we can to do good work. But it takes more than an inherent belief in the goodness of man to make great animated television series. Money, guts, and experience mixed with lucky timing and oh yeah, a strong sense of character and good design won't hurt. A somewhat recent television series that was a lot of work to make but had potential to become a classic (I thought) was Clone High. From my perspective as a board artist on that series the writing was great: witty, with a sense of satire and the surreal.

Regarding the Family Dog Series: I was a board artist (one of 3) on the first episode of the television series of Family Dog. I'll see if I can dig up some of my boards and post them... that'll be going down the memory lane! I have to say that the Family Dog series production started out with great hopes! Those of us working on it loved the special passionately. It's still one of my favourite animated shows ever. I was heartbroken to feel the thing slipping away. I read a few scripts and thought they lacked direction. Writers were trying out some innovative ideas but not following through on them, leaving comedy stillborn on the page. It was not funny. I never saw a finished episode. You could tell it was going to end badly. That sounds awfully smug of me to say, as if I was somehow not responsible. But that's how it looked from where I sat. Bittersweet.

Sometimes I wonder if producers would like to think that if you have a great property it will create itself. Ain't gonna happen. These animated series need to be coddled along every step of the way, and no matter how many episodes have been done already, or how great the idea is, you cannot just put the machine on auto and expect them to make themselves. The artists need to be supported with time and money and direction, and when all those things come together, the show can still die for lack of a commitment from networks.

With different venues to air our shows on, I wonder... will things be better for the next generation of animation creators?

Gavin Freitas said...

This is another great post. The Family dog was a great idea and animated very well. Stan Freberg did the voice of the dad which is very cool. I do agree that cartoons SUCK for kids and adults, but you should still see whats on TV and to see whats selling. If your better that what you see on TV (cause it's true) than do it. I wish my cartoons looked a little better (which I'm still working on) but thats because of a budget thing. Well hey, I love your work and keep posting. If you guys get bored go to http"//www.ketchupboy.org for my cartoons. I DONT use Flash and everything is drawn by hand. Good or Bad feedback is more than accepted.

Anonymous said...

It should be noted that you can find all the episodes of Family Dog on youtube:


Anonymous said...

I believe tv animation was seriously mediocre back in the 80s but for the past 15 years animation on tv has really gotten a lot better. As a fellow tv non-watcher, I know it's a big deal to actually sit down and watch something. I work near TVs all day so I get to catch things in passing even though I don't sit down with a TV at home and try to watch cartoons. But I recommend watching nickelodeon or asking around for some good cartoons on air today. There's still a lot of poop on tv but there's also a lot more good stuff too, more than there was before. You only have to watch something like foster's home for imaginary friends to be pleasantly surprised at some of the good things today. Even the more standard/mediocre cartoons of today are better than their counterparts from 20 years ago. I often think if I was a kid now instead of in the 80s, I would have had a better source of inspiration to draw from. As it was, I grew up thinking I should be drawing superheroes and he-man and gijoe cartoons, fighting evil organizations and all that other one-track toy-selling jazz.

I really believe kids today are lucky to have directors like genndy tartakovsky and other guys that take care with the craft and try to write well to be inspired from. We didn't have that back in the day, we had "aired one time" special cartoons like family dog that we loved but never saw again or on any consistent basis, no DVDs to see all the good stuff, and left with bs on after school TV.

Jenny Lerew said...

Chris, I'd have put Foster's Home on a short list of daily daytime fare that I think is beautifully designed and executed, animation-wise--in fact, when I wrote the caveat early on in my little rant, and I wrote "beautiful"--that's exactly the show I was thinking of. Those guys did a great job, no question at all.
I wouldn't dismiss outright the entire slate of shows, but every year there are so many that in concept and writing show exactly the same old stuff, and it just depresses me no end. It's akin to my childhood when every new "Saturday Morning" season, at least 80% of the shows seemed to be by H-B and were all the same in looks, design, music, cutting, writing; just the characters' hair colors changed. In some ways the stuff on certain networks now is also prey to a cookie-cutter style and feeling. And there's so much product glutting the airwaves that a truly unique show would be hard to find if it is on. Believe me, I will hold out hope, nevertheless.

Brendon said...

I think... think... that Olive the other Reindeer was actually quite good. I might be mistaken. Is it about anywhere to see again?

But if I'm right, a few screenings COULD elevate it to classic status.

the doodlers said...

Hello again, Jenny. Found it!! We've posted a sample of my boarding from THE FAMILY DOG series with a link to this post of yours. Do have a boo when you get a chance.

Cheers~ Arna

Anonymous said...

Just shot over from SpeakUp (Graphic Design blog) and would like to say hello to all you out there in illustration world. Coming from an artistic background (I went to art school at MICA) and being a huge fan of good illustration, and also being the older brother of a 3 and 7 year old, I have to say that cartoons today may have better animation, and are more widespread in their themes, but most of these show are simply stupid. The Nick and Cartoon Network line-up (excluding things like Adult Swim) have totally gone down the hole. There are a lot of garbage shows that keep going on and on, and never have anything different...and the sad part is that these shows are a dime a dozen, as stated before, there is just so much crap out there. When my siblings that are closer in age were growing up (ages 18 and 20) I could still appreciate some of the animation that was on. The shows had origianlity and were doing something different with their style. When I was growing up, A lot of animation was very similar...GIJoe, Thundercats, Transformers, and though I miss that classic style, I think it had its hey-day. I just wish, like the rest of you, that the modern cartoons would be inventive in both style and story.

Unknown said...

Don't know if you have these already, but I've just got hold of some Family Dog designs (photocopies only, I'm afraid). They're mighty cool though. I will let you know when I've scanned them in!

Acetate (Frank Ziegler) said...

Thanks for saying everything I have been trying to express unsucessfully at other "Boards". I made the unfortunate mistake of actually naming the shows that I think you might be reffering to. Oh well, live and learn, but thanks again for your great insight I agree 100%.