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Book Review: 'Cartoon Modern'

Christopher Harz provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Tactical Iraqi, one of the most successful serious games designed to teach Arabic to soldiers deployed in Iraq.

Cartoon Modern shows off the fresh, zany and colorful designs of 50s animation artwork.

Ah, 50s design! Fresh, zany, colorful and design-y, the animation artwork lovingly displayed in Cartoon Modern by Amid Amidi is a treat for the eye. In a period where morés were conservative, the designs in this book were the harbingers of a freer way of looking at animation and advertising art. It was an age of optimism, and studios were opening one after the other, producing wonderful work. Perhaps as a result of the avant-garde in fine art, such as Picasso or the Bauhaus group, artists had begun absorbing a new and radically different approach to design, and one of the places it showed up early in the 50s was animation, both in BGs and character design.

Look at the Pictures

The introduction states, "Cartoon Modern seeks to establish the place of '50s animation design in the great Modernist tradition of the arts." It talks about people like Ward Kimball (who was more than just a trombone player with yellow suspenders), John Hubley, Maurice Noble, Eyvind Earle and many more. It mentions the contributions that contemporary jazz scores were having. How artists were inspired by magazine illustration and record cover illustrators. Or, you could just look at the book's pictures. They're fun!

Changes the Strike Brought

Then it gets into a bit of history, with the Disney style of animation and the Preston Blair book, Animation, that set the American style of cartoons early on, even back as far as the 30s. European animation art was not so constricted. The 1941 Disney strike was a turning point. From it came UPA, Columbia's Screen Gems, Schlesinger Studio and the Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit that enlisted so many good animators. All of these were training grounds for the artists who would make an impact in the 50s.

Amidi says, "Disney believed that characters should be live, individual personalities -- not just animated drawings. But '50s animation designers embraced the fact that cartoons were, in fact, a visual composition of lines and shapes..." Artists were looking for inspiration in the European artists, like Miró, Dufy and Calder. Backgrounds were no longer painted with realistic techniques; more attention was paid to negative space and architectural motifs. Characters were choreographed through their settings. Moreover, artists just didn't want to draw in the Disney style.

The Impact of TV

Television was just coming into its own and animation became a major player on the small screen. The change in film distribution laws that eliminated block booking, where a cartoon was always booked with the feature, put more of the cartoon studios in the commercial production field. In the 50s, one out of four commercials were animated, according to Amidi.

Part of the reason so much of the commercial work in the era was really good was because animation was new to most advertising agencies. And they took a hands-off approach to the art form for the most part. Artists were given an assignment, went away and came back with the completed work. Nobody looked over their shoulder! No submitting to a committee for okays! What a wonderful way to work, and the results were original, humorous and excellent designs.

Nineteen Studios

After the introduction, Amidi explains that the book shows both production and pre-production artwork. TV spots are identified by designer, not by director. The book then goes studio to studio, alphabetically from Academy Pictures to Warner Bros. (19 in all), giving a short history of each and the impact they had on animation in general. The top artists, in the author's opinion, are given credit for the influence they had on design in the 50s era, as well as on the studios they worked in. The book couldn't possibly cover all of the studios, but it does hit the best. Some of those studios were quite short lived, while several are still around.

Even though good artists left Disney in droves, Amidi gives credit where credit is due. Both Disney and Hanna-Barbera are included for the fine experimental work they did, even if it wasn't sustained. Studios like Ray Patin Prods., Shamus Culhane Prods. or Electra Films, of the smaller studios, are thought to have had a larger impact.

The Fire Goes Out

In the section called, "The International Design Scene, Amidi says, "Although the fire for animation design had been largely extinguished in the United States by 1960, artists in other countries were picking up the slack." He goes on to cite a few of the more influential overseas studios. At Zagreb Studios in what was Yugoslavia, artists could experiment. They had government subsidies and, as Amidi says, "a failed film would not result in the termination of an artist's job."

A John Hubley UPA film made a big impact, according to Amidi and, by 1958, there was a "Zagreb School of Animation" aesthetic. In Great Britain, there was Larkin Studios and Biographic Films and T.V. Cartoons Ltd. Canada had and still has, of course, The Film Board of Canada, which has nurtured so many great artists. Why the fire was extinguished is probably a whole other volume.

Design Now

Amidi rounds out the book with an essay on the present and future of design in animation. He thinks that design started coming back into its own with the teachers at CalArts in the 80s, but didn't get to the screen until the mid-90s. On the small screen, Samurai Jack, My Life as a Teen Aged Robot and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends are terrifically designed. Some artists may see computer animation as more mechanical, but it can be created with excellent design. Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles are good examples on the big screen. Some TV commercials are going back to design.

The book winds up with two pages of photographs of artists apparently taken in the 50s. The first in the gallery is a wonderful shot of Ed Benedict and Michael Lah laughing over a storyboard. Other photographs throughout the book are pretty well identified except for the women who are generally unknown. Should have asked someone in ink and paint.

The Pictures Should Move

The illustrations don't move, of course, and animation design needs to be seen in motion. Each studio has two or more pages of representative designs, (UPA has 27, including a page of Paul Julian concept drawings from the Tell-Tale Heart) both in black and white and color, and if you saw them long ago in the originals, you are probably retired. (Remember the little man with the martini on the top of the airplane?) Those younger than that, go find a tape or CD of 50s commercials, if you can, or a UPA cartoon anthology and perhaps you'll see why these designs had so much impact. Unfortunately, many are no longer available. They may look dated in some ways, but, at the time, they were radically different and hugely influential. That influence is still felt today.

Cartoon Modern by Amid Amidi. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006. 192 pages includes 250 color and B&W illustrations. ISBN 0-811-84731-4 ($40.00).

Libby Reed started out at Walt Disney Studios in the 50s on Sleeping Beauty as a painter. She has worked at numerous commercial studios, spent 16 years as a fashion illustrator and wound up at Film Roman as a color designer under Phyllis Craig. Libby has two children, (one is Alex Reed, animation producer at Electronic Arts) and four grandchildren.