Aug 3, 2005

Bugs Is Dead: The Article Before "The Rules"

You've read that article I posted at Toon Zone? You know, the evil, sardonic one informing networks how to ruin your cartoon lineups in seven easy steps?

Well, that was the cut-down, edited, sanitized version. It's cool, it's essentially the same article but a little more sarcastic and snide. It's good, and it's created conversation all over the place.

Here's the thing . . . I tend to talk. A lot. I tend to get a little too wordy and too verbose. As a result, I tend to ramble on. What you're about to see is the article in its original, unsanitized form. Enjoy it, or not:

Bugs Is Dead: The Seven Beliefs of the Modern Television Animation Industry

Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, a pair of classic animation stars that entertained generations of film and television fans and sharing screentime in the milestone film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," are dead.

Okay, that's not true because they're just fictional characters that never lived. But in the hearts and minds of animation fans, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse are very real. However, the spirit that helped create an entire industry, personifed by the likes of Tom and Jerry, Donald Duck, Huckleberry Hound, Popeye, The Flintstones, Goofy, Woody Woodpecker, and, of course, Bugs and Mickey, is fading away in this country. These characters are not widely known by a generation of animation fans that were born after 1995. Bugs Bunny, in his original incarnation, is only seen on one outlet in the US, Boomerang (a channel that isn't as widely distributed as sibling channel Cartoon Network). Original Walt Disney-guided Mickey Mouse shorts are not on the air in the US at all. Animation isn't completely off the air in America. If it wasn't for just a handful of shows, animation in the United States would be totally unwatchable.

The whole North American animation industry has made two steps forward and eight leaps back in the past seven years. As much progress and innovation that has been made, the industry is more or less controlled by people who would rather be elsewhere.

Laurie Goldberg, for example, was one of these individuals.

Now, Laurie may not be known to the general public, but to many in the animation fandom circle, she is universally loathed. Ms. Goldberg clashed with fans of classic Looney Tunes fans for not showing shorts featuring Speedy Gonzales, a character she felt was stereotypical towards Latinos, while most Latinos viewed the heroic rodent in a positive light. In fact, her actions may have contributed to the migration of all Looney Tunes cartoons from the widely-available Cartoon Network to limited accessed Boomerang. Ms. Goldberg also tried to stymie and quash articles and newsworthy information posted by animation news sites, including Toon Zone. Recently, Ms. Goldberg was promoted to the same job she had at Cartoon Network for CNN. You know, for somebody that actually dealt with animation and actually worked in public relations (that is, someone whose job is to be friendly and amicable to people who watch and support Cartoon Network, including media types), her people skills were abhorable from what I've heard and very unbecoming for a professional.

Instead of entertaining cartoons, more often then not, we are forced to watch, to use a phrase coined by Matt Wilson, "cartoons by committee," corporate-guided animation with very limited feedback and contributions from individuals who actually work on and create cartoons. We have folks that are in positions of power with no real creative skills creating shows. I mean, who in their right mind would greenlight a series based on a foreign group as a marquee part of a premier programming block? We didn't do it for Spice Girls, ABBA, or t.A.t.u. (well, the Japanese did do a t.a.T.u. OVA, but this is America, we give extreme athletes and pseudopop and rap stars shows), so how did Puffy AmiYumi end up getting a show? Because they sang a theme song for Teen Titans? That can't be it, can it?

The fact is the animation industry is stuck on seven different beliefs, not necessarily of their own machinations, but rather because of the corporate entities entities that own them and control their destinies. And yet, these same corporate entities wonder why the shows they're creating are not connecting with viewers. And you may ask, "Why seven?"

Because seven sounds official. These seven beliefs are:

- No show, no matter how popular it is, shall go beyond 13-26 episodes per season or 52 episodes in its lifetime.

Once upon a time, back in the syndication era, the magic number used to be 65 episodes for weekdays and 13 episodes for weekend-only shows per season. Now, 13 episodes is the standard order for nearly all North American productions per season, with a strict limit of 52 episodes in its lifetime, or roughly four seasons. Weekday lineups, as a result, are cluttered with reruns of what was seen on weekends. However, more viewers are watching foreign-made animated productions from France, Italy, and Japan. A good majority of the "marketable" shows have exceeded 13 weekly episodes per season. In fact, some air new episodes 52 weeks out of a year, especially if they have a large number of episodes already finished.

Now I'm not saying that the industry shouldn't put a limit on episode orders, especially if a series is working, bringing in audiences and advertisers, but it would be very nice. Part of the problem is that 13 episodes of a North American-made show per season with LONG breaks inbetween new cycles of episodes aren't going to be judged fairly against a foreign-made series that has at least 26 episodes already made with more in production.

- Cartoons are just for kids.

Despite shows like Family Guy and American Guy and the "success" of Adult Swim, animation is still seen as a kids' medium, which is a shame. Animation is the best storytelling forum out there and would be suitable for any kind of story to be told, including stories that would attract older audiences. The Japanese have been doing it for half a century in anination. The corporate culture realizes that they could only entertain children for a small period of time, but they're slowly realizing that most children who enjoy cartoons grow up to be adults who enjoy cartoons. And they don't always have to go down to the lowest common denominator to create a successful show.

Have you ever noticed that most cartoons aimed at "mature" audiences often goes for the fratboy mentality? There's nothing wrong with immaturity in cartoons, but that can be found in kid-oriented cartoons and does continue to perpetrate the belief that cartoons are just for kids. Cartoons can be smartly written (yes, there's nothing wrong with scripts being used in animation) and well-animated without dumbing it down for immature, childish sould.

- Nobody cares about the past.

No. No, no, no, no, NO! The modern belief has frustrated me for years now, ever since Cartoon Network became more focused on newer shows than the library titles that helped build their network. The past also helped build the animation industry and took it beyond pre-movie entertainment and cheap commercials. Today's animation industry sees the shows of the past either as something that could serve in a mascot role or something "that could be improved." And by improved, they mean either shrunk down to babies, placed in unfamiliar stock roles, or totally revamped to the point of unrecognizableness.

As for the fate of the original shows and shorts? Well, either they move to a network barely available to audiences or completely disappear from the airwaves. I haven't seen a Tex Avery MGM cartoon since . . . (you know, if I have to use an ellipse, it's been too damned long ago). Warner Bros. has digitally remastered many of their titles, giving them a crisper look, making them look even better than they did in the theatrical years. Instead of showing these remastered shorts, we're forced to watch shows like Baby Looney Tunes. And yet, they can't really recapture the spirit the original cartoons once had. I'm sorry, let me scratch that. It's not that they can't, it's that they won't.

- Screw the past and modernize everything.

What's New, Scooby-Doo is a pretty decent show, but it mixes The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries (a lackluster, but popular retread of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?) with The New Scooby-Doo Movies (featuring guest stars you only know if you were born before 1976). The movies are closer to the original series than the current series is, and that's strange. Even though only a handful of people have seen them, most folks agree that Larry Doyle's recent cycle of Looney Tunes shorts were abysmal and completely unfathful to the original classics. Same for Disney's Mickey MouseWorks shorts and the 90's Woody Woodpecker Show. In fact, you can modernize something and keep it consistant to the vision of the original incarnation.

Case in point: Flintstones on the Rocks.

I could argue that it was the best original Flintstones production since before The Flintstones became kid-friendly with babies, kangaroo-like dinosaurs, and aliens. It was nostalgic and could entertain both kids and parents without being dumb, insane, loud, and innocious. I wouldn't have minded seeing a new Flintstones series done this way as an adult-oriented, yet family-friendly weekly half-hour animated series. Afterall, The Simpsons doesn't have a true competitor in this country. Instead, we get shows kid-friendly shows and adult-oriented shows. Nothing truly family-oriented.

- The artists don't matter.

It is kind of strange that the creative forces behind a lot of cartoons don't have much sayso in what comes out in the end. Hell, that's why Tex Avery left Warner Bros. for MGM many years ago after he was told he couldn't end a cartoon the way he wanted to (so, you see, this isn't just a modern thing about companies interfering in creative freedom). Once he left, he created the funniest cartoons ever made.

Today's modern animation artists are, in a way, the spiritual children of Tex Avery. They know what cartoons can do. They know how funny they could be made. And yet, they are handcuffed by the archaic studio system that limits creativity. Sure, having a series based on your creation on a major cable outlet is nice, but being told what to do and what you have to cut out to fit someone else's idea of comedy (which usually comprises a visual of a caricature in the Wall Street Journal followed by a lame New Yorker joke circling in their heads to most) isn't cool. They only think about what's trendy in their neighborhoods and funny to that segment, not anything that's universally funny.

Fortunately, the internet has provided outlets and technology has given artists tools to create their own products outside of the system. Many of them have become independent studios, free from the studio system and able to create their own visions. Unfortunately, for 85-95% of all animation artists, the current studio system is the only way they could make a living and a name for themselves. And sometimes, even independent studios may have to compromise their own visions to satisfy the corporate culture.

- When all else fails, go foreign . . .

Foreign animation (animation outside of North America) makes up 45% of all shows on the air. That number is growing as domestic distributors could pick up any show and try to make a market for it. Hell, that's how 4Kids got rich and influential. Foreign animation is choking the lifeforce of the domestic animation industry. Networks and distributors drool over what foreign outlets have availiable, looking for the next Dragon Ball Z, the next Pokemon, the next Cowboy Bebop, and/or the next Totally Spies.

One out of 25 shows that come from foreign markets are really good. For every Samurai Champloo, there are 24 junk shows that shouldn't have been made, let alone brought to North America. As a reviewer at my own site, I've seen plenty of titles and was left wondering "Why did they bring THIS here?"

It's a little-known secret that the anime industry is at a crossroads financially. Most distributors are only looking for titles they feel could be marketable to television, but they realize that networks are very fickle about what they want. So, despite looking for quality titles, they try to acquire every title they could get just so other companies won't "scoop" them. And that's the problem. Many anime distributors are going broke trying to find THE show, and are forced to forge alliances with other distributors or merge with other companies.

Aside from being already made, foreign animation is cheaper to big companies. Warner Bros. entered the anime market by co-producing at least four anime series over the next five years. Disney has become reliant on Italian and French animation houses for their television shows. Moonscoop, the international distribution wing of three French-based animation houses, is producing numerous shows, including The Fantastic Four via their AnteFilms unit. Because of the influx of foreign cartoons, American artists are adapting foreign-influenced designs, primarily anime-influenced looks. Of course, other foreign artists utilized anime-influenced designs and they're getting more shows brought over to America.

- . . . or go cheap.

Animation is considered as a lower rung of many corporate entities. They often consolidate individual units into one unit just to save a buck or two. By not investing in the industry, it shows lack of confidence of the skills of artists. It's bad enough animation is assembled by cheap labor houses. It's bad enough when it's actually drawn and animated by cheap, bad foreign studios. There are even studios that completely develop animation from cheap resources, from storyboard to completion (and distribution). That's why IDT Entertainment's Digital Production Services (DPS) was born. DPS in comprised of numerous worldwide studios, including the US-based Film Roman, the animators behind The Simpsons and King of the Hill. DPS's core mission is to provide inexpensive animation entertainment for all companies.

They claim this is the future of animation.

Be afraid.

Or be aware. It's your call.