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It’s Not All That Bad

Posted: December 5, 2010 by chdr in Animation, Animation Editorials, chdr

Note: Originally posted on toonzone animation blog.

Despite what others think, the sky is not falling, the world is not turning upside down, cats are not chasing dogs, and the fabric of reality is not in tatters. Someone somewhere got paid by some company to produce a cartoon about some product. That company would be Hasbro, and that cartoon would be the majority of new cable channel the Hub’s original animation output. I can understand why some feathers would be ruffled by this new channel. People who grew up in the 1980’s are familiar with the idea of making shows based off of licensed properties, back when such shows consisted of most of the Saturday morning animated landscape. The big bulk of the 80’s licensed shows were thinly veiled attempts to sell products to impressionable children; the equivalent of sugar-coated infomercials. Just like infomercials, most of them were creatively dead and incredibly bland. Even the memorable and popular shows from that era like the Transformers and G.I. Joe (which both coincidentally air in syndication on the Hub), don’t hold up all too well outside of nostalgic value. The fact that most of the Hub’s original content is blatantly based off of existing products does worry me a bit and is one of the channel’s big flaws.

Where this situation differs though, is that all of television is not the Hub, and we are in a far different environment from the 80’s where all animation was broadcast on a handful of outlets to a very small demographic. There are so many different alternatives in this day and age, that you don’t even need the backing of a television network or big-name studio to get your creative vision out there and profit off of it. The creation and popularity of inexpensive and easy animation tools like ToonBoom or Flash has also created an explosion of smaller studios that don’t answer to the whims of larger parent companies that want to push product. The diversity of who exactly the audience is has changed, too. Animation isn’t just for a small demographic of kids anymore, and “adult animation” isn’t just something you could only find at arthouse theaters or obscure (and sometimes imported) VHS tapes either. With the advent of FOX, [adult swim], Comedy Central, and the like, animation for adults has entered into the mainstream, entertaining a smarter audience that knows when the network is trying to sell them something.

Like everything in life, the industry could still be improved. While there are a few studios like World Leaders and Augenblick that hire outside the fray, the animation industry has way too big of a focus on the Los Angeles region, resulting in a bit of homogenization of art styles (like that “dreaded CalArts style” that tends to get reviled every now and then in pockets of the animation community). The anime industry in America is neutered from its early-00’s heyday, and isn’t doing as hot as it used to in Japan, either.

But the idea that you could complain and find faults in things like Family Guy, Naruto, Nicktoons Network, and smaller independent shows in the first place is proof that the industry is much better off than it was twenty or even ten years ago. Similar to how the yearly simulcasts of anime seem lackluster as compared to the days where the best anime of the decade were selected and sold exclusively, the lessening of quality is simply an illusion of having much more choice (and with that choice, a lot less quality control). There are an equal amount of good shows on the air as there were back then, and in a perfect world, there would be even more due to the increased amount of output on the market. Realistically though, opening up animation to anyone and everyone just means that everyone can make cartoons, and not just the talented people. If the environment was the same in the 90’s, you would get the same results. Simply being able to have that huge amount of uncontrolled output in the first place is a huge improvement from previous eras.

It seems to me that Amid’s real problem is the lack of “creator-driven cartoons”. And by “creator-driven cartoons”, he means “artist-driven cartoons”. And by “artist-driven cartoons”, he means “artist-driven cartoons by artists he likes”. Being creator-driven simply means the show’s creator has his vision on air, and nothing more. That vision can either be good or bad, and it can be by an artist or a writer. South Park is a creator-driven cartoon. After all, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are very heavily involved in all facets of production. Family Guy would also fit that description, considering the show uses Seth McFarlane oversees the show’s production with little interference from the executives at Fox. Even the new My Little Pony cartoon seen in the article takes a lot of influences from series creator Lauren Faust. On the other hand, a highly artist-driven show like the Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack could be considered a cartoon-by-committee, due to how the individual storyboarders tend to skew the show more to their likings than the vision of creator Thurop van Orman. Sure, it’s a committee of highly creative artists, but it’s a committee nonetheless. Heck, sometimes executive interference can be a good thing. No notes from outside critics means getting a creator’s untampered vision. If the vision is good, interference by “suits” can tamper and dilute a good product. If that vision isn’t so great, it just means the creator’s shortcomings aren’t checked. John Kricfalusi’s Ren and Stimpy is an example of executive interference saving the creator from himself.

There are no absolutes in anything. Not all shows made today are better or worse than what came before. Not all artistically bankrupt cartoons are made by committee. Not all quality cartoons are creator-driven. What is true is that the industry is a lot more creator-friendly than before, which is a very good thing, quality control aside. Yeah, it’s not all that good. But then again, it’s not all that bad.

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Follow Us On Twitter!

Posted: November 28, 2010 by chdr in chdr, Site News

On a lighter note, we now have an official Twitter account at www.twitter.com/realscratchpad! Follow us, perhaps!

Looking Back: Chowder

Posted: September 26, 2010 by chdr in Animation, Animation Reviews, chdr

Note: Originally posted on toonzone animation blog.

This month, two cartoons will have ended their runs permanently on the Cartoon Network. Chowder and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack represent the beginning of an era to some and the end of one to others. Their relatively short lifespans have been marked by high drama, extreme office politics, and a chuckle here or there. Both shows’ runs can both serve as cautionary tales, tragedies, or horror stories, depending on your outlook. Twice this month, I will look back on what was and what could have been on these two shows. The first is an oldie but a goodie, Chowder.

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Note: Originally posted on toonzone animation blog.

Recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the group responsible for the eponymous Academy Awards) decided that the technique of motion capture will no longer be considered to be “animation”. So, what does this mean for any animated Oscar hopefuls? According to AMPAS, the new definition for “animation” is something that consists of at least 75% of animation made by a “frame-to-frame technique”. (Coincidentally, they’ve also broadened the time limits for animated films, allowing more films to reach the necessary criteria to qualify.)

It’s understandable that the Academy would want to put these type of rules in place. Motion-capture consists of real actors getting their performances converted into an animated CGI form. In a way, it could be considered “cheating” and unfair to features that animate from scratch. It’s almost like taking a script, having Microsoft Sam read it, and then submit that reading into a competition with real actors. Almost.

What the Academy doesn’t seem to take into consideration is that mo-cap is not some magic machine that converts live-action performances into a completed film automatically. Behind every mo-cap movie is a team of animators working frame-by-frame to take those performances and turn them into actual animated features. To say that these people are not animators seems insulting and a bit elitist.

Who is the Academy to dictate to artists what their work is and is not? And if mo-cap isn’t allowed, then what about rotoscoping? Rotoscoping consists of tracing live-action images into drawings and is pretty much just a lo-fi, two-dimensional version of motion capture. Also, what about programs like Macromedia Flash that allow you to tween drawings from location to location, without actually drawing each frame? Surely those aren’t “true animation”, too?

The line between animation and live-action has become very blurred in this modern day and age. The days where the majority of animation was drawn traditionally without shortcuts and easily distinguishable from real actors is long gone. The advent of the digital age has allowed animation and its processes to branch off into newer, different forms. Animation has become much more widespread in Hollywood under the guise of “special effects”. Chances are that your average summer popcorn flick will contain more CG special effects than real people these days.

As with a lot of technological advances these days, their biggest flaw comes with users attached. Technology has become so advanced that the advancements are moving faster than our society can comprehend them and wedge them into our everyday rules. Just like how cybercrime isn’t punished as much as it should be due to the modern-day criminal justice system being fixated on physical crimes, modern animation isn’t recognized as much as it should be due to Hollywood’s fixation on a certain perception of the medium that is becoming increasingly outdated. As an example, one aforementioned popcorn flick was James Cameron’s Avatar. The movie used state-of-the-art technology to create an alien world that was more virtual than physical. Despite featuring live-action actors, the majority of these “people” were altered so heavily by mo-cap and CG that the film probably could have run for Best Animated Feature if it wanted to. James Cameron didn’t like the idea of his movie being a “cartoon” and staunchly proclaimed the opposite.

The perception of animation needs to change if it is ever to be seen as live-action’s equal. Maybe the act of classifying something as “animation” period is something that needs to change. By creating awards like “Best Animated Feature”, cartoons are walled off into their own ghetto, separated from the “real” movies. Maybe we should all be springing for movies to be judged on the same stage, regardless of medium. Pixar’s Up was given a Best Picture nomination, and that’s a start.

So, what is animation? Animation in its most broad and basic terms is any moving image that isn’t real, any moving image that isn’t physically happening during production. Pandora is animation. Bugs Bunny is animation. Wallace and Gromit are animation. Buzz Lightyear is animation. Animation is not what animation was fifty or even twenty years ago. Animation today is a diverse, serious medium that needs to be treated as just that: a medium. Animation is not a genre, and it is not some sort of uniform style of art and production. Animated films are indeed real movies.

Note: Originally posted on toonzone animation blog.

In 1992, millionaire media mogul Ted Turner decided to put his massive animation library to use and he created a revolutionary new cartoon network. He imaginatively titled it Cartoon Network, and later ran off to one of his four ranches in Montana to retire. The cable channel would be dedicated to showing animation 24/7. Over the years, a tiny experiment grew into a moderately successful outlet for original and acquired animation. This, along with Nickelodeon’s successful and growing stable of Nicktoons had turned cable television into the most important outlet for animation in the country by the dawn of the new millennium. During the late 90’s and beyond, more companies were jumping on Ted’s train of thought and creating animation stations of their own, from Nickelodeon’s Nicktoons TV to Disney’s Toon Disney. These channels often went global, bringing localized versions of themselves to new frontiers. Some countries decided to make their own cartoon networks, such as Canada’s Teletoon and Asia’s Animax. Bringing the situation to newer absurdities, broadcasters began to create newer niche networks out of the already existing animation niche, like classics-only Boomerang or the now-defunct but self-explanatory Anime Network. So where are these networks now? Most of them still exist, but in name only. With the exception of Boomerang and handful of smaller stations, live-action has been aggressively encroaching on animation on networks that claim to be dedicated to it. How did cartoon networks become an endangered species?

As with most examples of network “gentrification”, it all began slowly. In 2005, Cartoon Network began to show live-action movies here or there, regardless of their relation to animation. At the time, the higher-ups gave the excuse that these movies were “cartoony in spirit” or “had animated special effects”, suddenly making it acceptable to show anything on Cartoon Network as long as someone could tangentially relate it to animation. Cartoon Network’s raunchier late-night cousin Adult Swim similarly dropped all pretenses of being animation-only in 2007, when they greenlighted several live-action original series. To this day, Adult Swim airs and produces much more live-action than its daytime counterpart. Despite several attempts to popularize live-action on CN (including several original movies and a failed sitcom), the offensive came in full force in the summer of 2009, with six reality shows, in contrast to the whopping zero original cartoons that premiered that year. Despite the best efforts of the Turner hype machine, pretty much every attempt to put live-action on a cartoon network has failed, but that certainly hasn’t stopped them.

And it’s not the usual suspect that’s at blame here. Toon Disney began to show Power Rangers and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody before Disney simply retired the brand altogether. Nicktoons shows various Nickelodeon shows and is set to get Power Rangers this fall. Even other countries are not immune, with international versions of these networks picking up live-action series of their own. Some channels have fallen prey without the influence of an American mother station, like Animax in South America, which now runs That 70’s Show and Clueless nightly. Why is this practice becoming so prevalent today? It’s not like animation is suddenly unprofitable. Some of these stations haven’t even found great success with their experiments but keep pushing anyway, like Cartoon Network, who presumably thinks that “this time things will be different”.

There are a lot of little answers that factor into this. Part of it is the top men in charge. Just as an auto mechanic should not be running a bakery, a person (for example, Stuart Snyder at Cartoon Network) with expertise working at World Wrestling Entertainment should not be running a television channel about animation. Companies often pick “star executives” based more on track records rather than actual experience. The problem is that instead of adapting to a new environment, the exec simply runs the job like he would run his old one. Another part is corporate policy. Viacom, master of corporate synergy, has been doing this for years with Nickelodeon’s sister network Nicktoons. Nickelodeon shows like Big Time Rush and The Troop have found homes on Nicktoons simply because of this practice. (Nickelodeon has yet to return the favor.) In some cases, the fans haven’t been too helpful either, considering this practice is okay in a lot of circles given it’s live-action they like. Case in point: Power Rangers‘ move to Nicktoons. Cartoon Network not picking the series up was considered a “missed opportunity”.

But the major underlying cause for all of this is the way television is being run today in general. Cable television has begun to categorize networks by demographics instead of niches, and it shows. Most “changed” niche networks have become that way because of attempts to capture so-and-so demographic. MTV is no longer Music Television, it’s a network for “hip and edgy” teens. Syfy is no longer science fiction, it’s television for geeks. And Cartoon Network and its ilk are no longer animation channels. They have been classified by the television industry as generic kids networks and treated as such.

While it’s disheartening to see live-action on networks dedicated to animation, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. There are ways to include live-action on a television network without losing the network’s original vision or integrity. For example, live-action based on or about animated properties like Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Alvin in the Chipmunks could be fair game to show. There’s also the possibility of actual programming on the animation industry. One example that would fit classics station Boomerang like a glove would be a series of documentaries on animation and its history. Whether or not channels are willing to respect their own format is up to them.

Unfortunately, this mentality will never change if the industry never changes. The current focus on strict sets of demographics and nothing else is threatening diversity on television as a whole and turning cable into a mass of gray goo where you can catch repeats of shows like Law and Order on every other network and dozens of carbon copies of popular shows because “men ages 18-34 like this” or “girls ages 7-15 like that”. Even Nielsen themselves say not to take up too much stock in that type of thinking.

Sea Change

Posted: June 15, 2010 by chdr in Animation, Animation Editorials, chdr

The party is over. It started at the turn of the millennium, and people thought it would last forever. There were ups and downs, but generally everybody had a good time. Drinks were shared, pills were downed. And then came the hangover. Some partygoers overdosed. Others found themselves in a new standing with their friends and family. And a few began picking up the pieces of those left behind. This is the story of the rise and crash of the anime industry.

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Ted Turner was a millionaire who sure loved his cartoons. His multimillion-dollar entertainment corporation bought the rights to Hanna-Barbera’s vast library of animation, MGM’s theatrical shorts, and even some of the older Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts. Ted had the content, but where was the venue? For a time, it was on other Turner networks such as TBS. Eventually, Turner decided to make a groundbreaking decision: the first all-cartoon network (imaginatively titled Cartoon Network), in the vein of the nation’s first all-news network, CNN (also by Turner), which had changed the television landscape over a decade ago. While CN wasn’t as successful and influential as CNN, it still continues to have a decent audience and has branched out into other ventures, such as original programming. Ted had left his namesake company shortly after conglomerate Time Warner purchased it. To his dismay, the classic cartoons that were his network’s original bread and butter were phased out more and more for newer material, eventually shoving the classics (what few that remained) to graveyard slots, with the exception of perennial favorites Scooby-Doo and Tom & Jerry, which continue to air on the network to this day. By this point, the tired, overplayed classics were seen as anchors holding the network back from its ambitions, and the executives needed a way to cut them loose. Enter Boomerang.

Boomerang is as old as the network itself, and had gone through a slow, eight-year metamorphosis prior to its current form. Boomerang started at the network’s 1992 launch as a retro-themed block of programming for baby boomers dedicated to showing classic cartoons. Unfortunately for Boomerang, the entire network had nothing but classic cartoons, making it just another unremarkable stretch of programming. The block’s apparent uselessness made it constantly moved around the schedule over the years, but it never died. Over the years, as CN gained more content outside the initial Turner library, Boomerang’s programming became more unique to the block. Eventually, Boomerang became one of the only places on the network to find classics. They even decided to change the block’s format to a year-by-year themed showcase (for example, if one weekend’s theme was 1974, only shows from 1974 would play). This history of being CN’s enduring go-to block for classics made it the perfect candidate f0r a spin-off network. It was a brilliant idea on paper. The execs could finally remove classics off their network, and fans of classics could watch a network dedicated to classics, tailor-made for them. It was a win-win situation.  While Boomerang the block slowly faded away by 2004 (thus beating Toonami by one year as CN’s longest-running block), it seemed that Boomerang the network would be going strong for years to come.

But things on paper don’t work as planned, and Boomerang began to stagnate. Variety eventually began to lessen. Schedule changes became sparse and new additions non-existent. The classics began to cycle tiredly without end. Eventually, the network began to move from its “all classics, all the time” mantra by adding newer shows such as Pokémon and Justice League to the lineup. Nowadays, the channel is on auto-pilot, with the same line-ups, packaging, and shows cycling all the time, for years on end.

Something has got to change at Boomerang, sooner or later. Here are a few ideas on how.

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