Mar 16, 2006

John K. Invented The Internet (Cartoon)

2000. The last sane year in our nation, back when a lot of stuff made sense. The last year when Looney Tunes could be seen on broadcast television.

Remember Al Gore?

He was the Vice-President of the United States and the Democratic candidate for President. At the time, everybody skewered everything he and his opponent, whatshisname, said. One of the things Al Gore was repudited to have said was that he invented the system that would become known as the Internet. Yes, he may have been present during the formulative years of ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet, but that doesn't mean he invented it. The Internet grew, evolved, and expanded into the chaotic mess you see today.

Now, I'm not comparing John Kricfalusi to Al Gore, but he has made a similar claim recently. On his blog, he claimed that he was responsible for three of the animation industry's biggest innovations in the last 15 years and all that read him should grovel to his feet, soaking them with bucketfuls of saliva. Okay, he didn't say THAT, but he basically wants credit for these innovations. John K. actually has given me reason to give him some of the credit, but that's all.

SOME of the credit, not all.

I'll break down the innovations as he pointed them out:

CLAIM #1: John K. created the original cable TV animation industry and inspired networks to develop their own television studio system.

Betty Cohen and Geraldine Laybourne.

It's been a while since we've heard those names. Both women are now at two rival women's networks (Lifetime and Oxygen, respectively) A little over 20 years ago, they both became the architects behind revamping Nickelodeon, transforming the Young People's Station into The First Kids' Network and creating an image that is one of the most recognized brands on the planet. Laybourne managed the network while Cohen managed the on-air look of the network, including the idents, promos, and the logo still in used today. They also created Nick At Nite, a network block that became home to television nostalgia. Cue to 1988. Ralph Bakshi, one of pioneers of the modern era of animation that a lot of people tend to not give enough credit to, was approached by the ladies to produce a pilot for a concept he originally planned for a comic strip.

That concept was Tattertown.

Created and co-directed by Bakshi, this was the first original animated project made in America to air on Nickelodeon (earlier that year, Nickelodeon aired its first original series, Count Duckula, produced by Cosgrove Hall but making its world premiere on Nickelodeon). By the way, the co-director was Bakshi's protege, John Kricfalusi. Around this time, Cohen and Laybourne were determined to make more original cartoons for the network. Tattertown was supposed to become a series, but after a boycott call from a fundamentalist television watchdog group for Bakshi's other co-production, Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, Nickelodeon scrapped plans for the series. Only the pilot, Christmas in Tattertown, aired. Of course, around the same time, the protege, behind Bakshi's back, sold a solo concept that the network chose instead of Tattertown. That series was Ren and Stimpy.

Seems like John K. pulled a "Camp" now, doesn't it?

In theory, John K's studio system was inspired by Ralph Bakshi's studio system and had many of Bakshi's former employees as some of the members of Spumco. History (and John K.) have forgotten about that. Hmm. So, that would mean that a studio system that many current cable networks have installed were a ripoff of a studio system that was a ripoff of another studio system, right?

Of course cable animation didn't really hit its stride until they actually took on Saturday morning institutions, and became of three factors for the death of Saturday mornings. The other two factors were the FCC's three-hour mandate of educational children's programming and the conglomeration of broadcast television which led to limited choices and a period of indifference on the network's part. They really didn't take on Saturday mornings until long after Ren and Stimpy left the network.

I'm just saying.

CLAIM #2: John K. reignited the shorts system of animation, inspiring a generation of cartoonists in the process.

Scriptwriters are the devil when it comes to animation. They write because they cannot draw, so therefore, they're not to be trusted in animation. That's the credo of the anti-writers field of animators. In this claim, John K's playing the role of instructor to the head of Hanna-Barbera, a studio he had publicly ridiculed and scorned. So, during this age of renaissance, John K. enlightened Fred Seibert, a guy who was MTV's first creative director (who engineered the feel of the young network), about "real" animation, free from the wordiness of scripts, and told him to revamp everything.

Of course, Seibert was determined to bring in young creators and animators to let the develop their own products and bring their own creative vision to others. The Tom and Jerry Kids Show was the first of the new crop, but it was 2 Stupid Dogs, which many had written off as a Ren and Stimpy-esque series, that allowed them to become really creative. The animators on both shows became the backbone of the What A Cartoon! project at Hanna-Barbera and a few of them became the backbone of the Oh Yeah! Cartoons project at Frederator, his own studio.

Seibert deserves a LOT more credit than he gets. It's like John K. painted him as a kid listening to an old man for advice.

CLAIM #3: Bored and frustrated about the direction of television animation (the medium he revolutionized), John K. finds a friend with a new untested medium format and creates Flash animation before anybody else.

Okay, congratulations. One of John K's claims is not totally unquestioned. He created the first Flash animation series. But just because his was the first doesn't mean that he was the best. Being the first doesn't always mean you're going to get all the accolades you feel you deserve. I remember seeing the Goddamn George Liquor Show way back when, and I thought it was okay to say the least.

But I've seen better uses of the vector animation format over the years. Mucha Lucha, Foster's, and 6Teen use vector animation to its highest potential, and I've seen a few others online that kind of outshine them. And a lot of it are scores better than George Liquor in visuals, plot, and voice acting.

I'm not even saying that John K. doesn't deserve some credit for the direction of 2D animation in this country because he does. However, I think he's asking for credit where credit isn't due. It's like the guy who told Betsy Ross to use a blue field for the stars instead of green, the guy who said "Hey, let's change the flavor of Coca-Cola," or the junior House congressman who is in the room when a communications tool was in development. Some ideas are good, some ideas are bad, but one person can't take credit for EVERYTHING.

10 comments:

Enoch Allen said...

The root of all animation, of all live-action, of all CG animation, is the quality of the story. The characters. If you don’t give a shit about what goes on in the story, the rest is just style in futility.

That said, I think John K. has been royally stiffed by the very industry he improved. I thought his “give me the credit” article was hilarious and educational, at the same time. The high-ranking suits (and maybe some pros in the industry he burned bridges with) responsible for withholding these vital benefits from him would like nothing more (I think) than to see the info he posted on his blog forgotten. That way, the newcomers would be like “wha” if you asked them if they could name just a few of the innovations John K. has been responsible for.

I also think that John K.’s trying to hustle up some funding for a venture, though I can’t verify this. If he is, I wish him a metric Mars-ton of good luck.

Jorge Garrido said...

It doesn't matter if he made the BEST series, he co-made the FIRST, which makes me CO-CREATOR. John K claimed ot hvae co-created the cartoon with Annmarie Ashkar, and he never asked for accolades, jeff.

Here's what Stephen Worth, drector of the Animation Archive project said:

There were *no* Flash cartoons before the Goddamn George Liquor Program. In fact, the program wasn't even called Flash back then. It was before Annmarie started too... I scanned in a half dozen of John's quick sketches and John sat down at my computer and animated the sun coming up, blinking and smiling to show everyone that it could be done.

I was there. I can attest to it.

Here is some untold Spumco history...
In the Summer of 96, MSN hired Spumco to produce an "interactive web comic" and suggested doing it in Futuresplash Animator. John pitched them Weekend Pussy Hunt, and they loved it. The MSN guys intended that the comic would have simple popup dialogue baloons when you clicked on a panel and an occasional eye blink or other simple movement. They gave me a copy of Futuresplash Animator and I installed it on my computer, which was the fastest one at Spumco at the time. John sat down to see how the program worked, and the MSN guys outlined the basics for him.

After ten minutes playing with Futuresplash Animator, John turned around and told the MSN guys that he could animate a limited animation cartoon on it. The Microsoft guys poo pooed him, saying that the closest that you could get to real animation with Futuresplash was letters sliding in on banner ads. John insisted that he could do it, and sent the MSN guys away to lunch, telling them, he'd have something for them to look at when they got back.

He quickly inked a small pile of drawings of a sun waking up, blinking and smiling- and a simple horizon line background. I scanned the drawings while he sat at my computer and imported them into FSA and colored and manipulated them. When the MSN guys got back from lunch, John showed them the animation and their jaws hit the floor. They got on the phone, and the next day, they top development execs from MSN were on a plane and in the Spumco office crowded arouund my computer to see the animation.

When Macromedia bought the program, before the ink was dry on the deal, their top people were at Spumco crowded around my monitor, looking at John's early animation tests for Weekend Pussy Hunt.

Right around that time, John and Jim did a signing at the Golden Apple in Hollywood. I was standing around with the crowd, and I chatted with a girl who was waiting to get a Jimmy doll autographed. Her name was Annmarie, and she said she was a graphic artist, working on computers. Spumco was looking for freelance colorists for Comic Book at the time, so I told her to bring in her resume the following week. When she dropped it off, Kevin Kolde and I looked at it and spotted that she listed that she had been experimenting with Futuresplash Animator. We called her up and she met with John and the two of them went to work laying out the organizational and technical issues related to what is now called "Flash Animation".

We worked on Weekend Pussy Hunt for MSN and the Goddamn George Liquor Program for spumco.com, until MSN abandoned their entertainment portal. Weekend Pussy Hunt eventually was released by Icebox.

August of 1996 sounds like right around the time when John did that first animation of Mr Sun. It ended up being the first scene in the first episode of WPH, leading into the infamous poo parade scene.

See ya
Steve

Jorge Garrido said...

Uh, oh. I think I dood a baaaaaaaaaaaaaad thing, Jeff. After I posted a link to this post on John's blog, and after I made the above comment, John told me:

>>Hey Jorge, I don't want to start wars.
This blog is for people who have the same interests as me, like cartoony cartoons.
If someone doesn't like them, that's fine. No point in arguing about it.<<

So my above comment was NOT endorsed my John K and he doesn't want any trouble. Don't take this as a challenge, just letting you know what's up.

jh said...

>>It doesn't matter if he made the BEST series, he co-made the FIRST, which makes me CO-CREATOR. John K claimed ot hvae co-created the cartoon with Annmarie Ashkar, and he never asked for accolades, jeff.<<

And I'm not trying to take that away from him. I even said so in the article. That's probably the only thing in his post that I'm sold on. A lot of people were the first in their field are often lost by those that improve on them.

History has all but forgotten about Bray, Hurd, and Barré.

Contrary to what you may think, I'm not a John K. hater as he may profess a lot of critics as being. I'm a huge fan of his work, and he's one of the most creative minds out there.

I'm just saying that for the other two "innovations," he didn't invent the wheel. John knows the history of industry, but, like the book of life, some pages are conveniently glued together. His claims makes his contemporaries look like they were slackjawed dimbulbs who got to their position just on a wink and a prayer.

I'm not trying to take credit from anybody. I'm just saying that one man doesn't deserve ALL the credit.

jh said...

Hey Jorge, it's cool, man. I don't want to start fights with people bigger than me myself. Idiotic networks on the other hand, well, that's a different story

I.M. Weasel said...

I thought you did a good job of...how should I put this...deflating John's statements. I think he's half-right in the scope of the accomplishments and influences he's had--I mean obviously, he wouldn't be such a lightning rod for attention if he wasn't important (just the mere mention of John K or Spumco on certain boards is an easy ticket for a flamewar).

However I think John is at least half right, though I know that in the past, he's taken credit for stuff that wasn't really his. I could almost sense that in his statements regarding Cartoon Network, he all but wants to outright take credit for Dave Feiss' "Cow and Chicken", but I know he won't go that far because he's actually friends with Dave, heh. But lets just say, I've heard two conflicting reports on the genesis of that series, and if you want to get a bit more into the nitty gritty, you could probably email me or something.

John's legacy at this point is definitely mixed. I learned of his idea to make a "creator-driven cartoon network" several years back, and honestly thought it was one of the greatest, most noble ideas in the industry that I'd seen up to that point--but I also knew the irony of this idea was that with a person like John in charge, his idea won't fly, because by most peoples' standards, he's far too difficult to deal with. I still personally consider him the best cartoon artist of our time, as well as the most influential, though he's not my favorite (the aforementioned Dave Feiss is). But his views and attitudes towards others as well as the world as a whole make him a person that many people just simply don't want to be around in a working enviroment--which in a field that is as collaborative as animation is, is a must.

Lastly, I'll add that revisionist history isn't exactly new to animation either--just look at the rivalry between Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones...

Jorge Garrido said...

Idiotic networks deserve any criticism they get, especially the new CN.

I never heard of this Cow And chicken controversy before, though.

neglekted said...

A couple of quick factual corrections to your otherwise good analysis: Gerry Laybourne indeed ran Nickelodeon during the time mentioned. Debby Beece (currently President of programing for Oxygen) ran programming and promotion. Betty Cohen had at best an administrative role not a significant creative one, no matter how she pumped it up before her tenure at Cartoon Network. She had next-to-nothing to do with the creation of Nick-at-Nite (the brainchild of Fred Seibert and Alan Goodmann) and virtually nothing to do with Tattertown, other than running the tune-in promotion for the special.

neglekted said...

Hmmmm, Cow & Chicken, as far as I know: Fred Seibert was trolling around for great talent to work with. John gave him a list, including Dave Feiss, Eddie Fitzgerald (who both did What A Cartoon! shorts) and Mike Fontinelli, and a few others. Simutaneously, Dave was writing, boarding, directing for Larry Huber on 'Super Secret Secret Squirrel', superficially Dononvan Cook's remake. Larry pushed Dave to pitch to WAC! saying this was his one chance to do a film 'his way.' Dave pitched a board he'd been improvising to his kids as a bedtime story. If John was further involved it was fairly deeply behind the scenes.

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