For this month's column, Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman lays down the laws of animation, which involves creation, evolution and intelligent design.
The bookstore is a rather bleak proposition these days. Anyone wishing to peruse the alleged "social sciences" section looking for new and interesting takes on cultural studies finds instead a tiresome battle raging between politicians, media figures and sundry poltroons of the Left and Right. This seems to be America's literary equivalent of sectarian violence. One aspect of this contentious forum is represented by fiery arguments over whether evolution, creationism or intelligent design represents the true state of nature.
As I was sitting at my desk this evening, my attention wandered over to a handsome beer stein I had received on one of my birthdays. The stein boasts colorful raised figures of Bugs Bunny in five different stages of his development over time. I recalled seeing similar depictions of the evolution of Mickey Mouse, and the amusing thought came to me that the field of animation has actually settled the evolution controversy rather neatly.
You see, no matter what your beliefs may entail, there is room in animation for all three viewpoints. Animated characters can be created, can evolve through a process similar to that of natural selection, and it can be shown that their evolution follows a template indicative of intelligent design. There are almost no major animated characters that did not change in appearance over time, be they creations of the silver or the television screen. Many of the stories are as interesting as anything found in the Bible or On the Origin of Species. This month we take a look at examples of how evolution played a part in animation history. Don't you wish the arguments were this easy in the real world?
(Note to readers: Evolution typically takes millions of years over thousands of generations. Such is not the case in cartoons, which evolve over mere decades or in some cases a few dozen films. Despite what the historical record of the Warner cartoons says, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig merely portrayed cavemen and were not in the process of evolving over 1,000,000 years ago. Marvin Martian assures me that this is true.)
1. The Law of Greatest Attraction
Creating a cartoon character from scratch has been done many times in the history of animation. Some became very famous, some thrived for a while before disappearing, and yet others became extinct after a very short time (Some say that these were washed away in a great acetate flood, but fossil records of them remain and can still be seen today). The longest-lived characters have demonstrated the survival of the fittest by adapting and evolving over time. Evolution in cartoons takes three different paths, and intelligent design has a hand in all of them. The first path of cartoon evolution is that of greatest attraction.
No one loves an ugly cartoon character, although there have been some loveable ones along the way. The eye is drawn to pleasing shapes and their analogues in human physiology. This is why animals, as far as audiences are concerned, can be depicted more realistically than human figures can be. The more an animated human approaches simulacrum status, however, the more unforgiving of flaws audiences tend to be.
If an animal is humanized enough, the same phenomenon tends to take place. A very early example was Walt Disney's first version of Oswald the Rabbit as drawn by Ub Iwerks. There was immediate protest from Charles Mintz that Oswald looked fat, sloppy, and far too old to be a successful cartoon star. Iwerks went back to the drawing table and produced a peppy young rabbit capable of pleasing the distributor and the audience as well.
After Ub Iwerks left to form his own studio with the backing of Pat Powers, he created a very homely frog named Flip. This wide-mouthed, pinheaded character carried with him the more repulsive aspects of the amphibian, and was thus too ugly to succeed for long. Iwerks and all of his artists knew it, and before long Flip became more rounded, less web-footed, fully clothed, and sported a short little muzzle instead of his original beak-like schnozz. In short, he looked like a small human boy, especially after a jaunty cap was added to his design. Poor Flip, however, was soon a dead branch on the evolutionary tree; Hoppity Hooper was actually a different species.
One of the more famous characters involved with the Law of Greatest Attraction was the dapper dude we know as Jiminy Cricket. After Walt Disney became dissatisfied with the progress of Pinocchio, he went back to the source material and found that Carlo Collodi had given Pinocchio a conscience in the form of a cricket. This thankless job cost the insect his life, but Walt had happier things in mind and assigned young Ward Kimball to design "Jiminy" Cricket for the film. Kimball started out with an actual cricket, but it was not nearly cute enough for Walt. Kimball recalls a gradual eradication of every aspect resembling an insect until all that remained was a little man in top hat and spats. As Kimball put it, Jiminy was only a cricket because everyone in the film said he was. Still, Jiminy did evolve according to the Law of Greatest Attraction.
Other characters adhering to this great law of evolution included Betty Boop, who started out as a rather homely dog in the 1930 cartoon "Dizzy Dishes." I recall John Kricfalusi telling me he was repulsed by the character, which he likened to a giant fly. However, within a couple of years, Betty had evolved into America's cutest Boop-boop-be-doop. The only time this Law was ever known to fail was Chuck Jones' attempted to restructure evolution. He bioengineered the classic Warner characters to develop long curly eyelashes and ultra-cute poses and facial expressions. Happily, nature has once again taken its course and this variant line mercifully died out.
2. The Law of Utility
Survival of the fittest generally means that an organism evolves specific features that give it a leg/wing/fin up in environmental competition. Cartoon characters don't really compete for food, territory, or mates outside of their on-screen adventures (really they don't, Woody) but they do compete for audiences. In the prehistoric days of the late 1920s, cartoon characters had to evolve new ways of being more real to audiences. These creations could not be actors as they lacked an accurate measure of physical expression, yet they were appearing in films. The most spectacular examples of evolution by utility involved the gradual evolution of the jointed limb and the development of plastic bodies that retained the same volume whatever the action or movement.
"Rubber hose" animation meant just that: limbs were boneless, hose-like and lacked articulation. If needed, they could stretch to distances that Mr. Fantastic would envy or be neatly tied in knots. In at least one Mickey Mouse cartoon, Minnie had her overextended leg tied into a knot, but she solved that dilemma by snipping the knot with a pair of shears, restoring her leg to proper length once more. When characters danced (and that's primarily what they did back then), their arms and legs flailed about like four snakes attached to a central trunk. Clearly, as animation progressed, this would not do for long.
Bill Nolan was the acknowledged master of the rubber hose style, and it did allow the animator to work with amazing speed. However, the price as reflected on the screen was far too high. Therefore, the articulated joint and its anatomical correlates evolved. Much of this early evolution to realistic anatomy was pioneered at Disney. It is fair to note that animators who wish to work in rubber hose animation today have been successful with it, as it does contain a strong element of cartoony charm and can express exaggerated emotional states; witness John Kricfalusi's work on The Ren & Stimpy Show. However, for many years animation evolved away from the rubber hose style and an emphasis on realism took precedence.
Mickey Mouse was a prime example of how a character evolved according to the Law of Utility; Mickey was originally very much a rubber hose mouse who also sported solid black oval (or in some cartoons, pie-cut) eyes. He was gradually redesigned by the Disney artists, primarily Fred Moore, so that his body accommodated the principles of what is known as "squash and stretch" animation. Mickey's movements reflected the effects of weight, gravity, and force, making him a far more adaptable character capable of increased realism. Mickey's evolution thus allowed for a fuller range of expression.
Moore furthered the process by adding pupils to Mickey's eyes in the early 1940s. Mickey now had much greater use as an actor. Mickey Mouse is a virtual study in cartoon evolution. In fact, the Mouse even developed evolutionary features that disappeared because they violated the Law of Greatest Attraction, namely three-dimensional ears that turned in perspective. (This technically designated Mickey as a temporary atavistic throwback.) This mid-`40s attempt to bring more visual depth to the character backfired and Mickey was soon back to his former design.
3. The Law of Economy
When it comes to survival in the evolutionary arena, cartoons must deal with more than just nature, red in tooth and claw. They have to contend with budgets, costs, and finances. This is why the Great Theatrical Cartoons became extinct in the first place. A great budgetary asteroid collided with every Hollywood studio during the mid-1950s, leading to a massive die-off of nearly every theatrical toon on Earth. This led to the Hanna-Barberassic Age, in which toons evolved and adapted for the era of television by developing the strategy of moving only one part of their bodies while the rest remained in stasis. Limited animation is the ultimate expression of the Law of Economy, because both time and cost were saved.
Even before this epochal event, however, changes due to the Law of Economy could be seen in late theatricals. One example involved later versions of Tom in the popular MGM Tom and Jerry cartoons produced by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. Tom started out with multicolored eyes, very shaggy fur, and multiple eyebrows that sprang from his forehead for added menace. As cartoons became more expensive, such details added to the cost of films, and thus Tom began a streamlining process in which all of these features disappeared, replaced by simpler and thicker lines. Tom's great familiarity to audiences and immense popularity mitigated the Law of Greatest Attraction to some degree, and Tom was able to adapt and survive. The same can be said for another MGM star, Tex Avery's Droopy. The original hound was far more complicated in design in earlier incarnations, but was streamlined and simplified as time went on and budgets became tighter.
There, then, are the three main laws of cartoon evolution. There are possibly (and probably) more, but I could not go on an expedition to the Galapagos Islands (or even LA.) this month so as to write about them at length. I leave it to future geneticists and evolutionists to complete the picture, and of course, to the toons themselves. With further refinements in GGI technology, I'm sure we haven't seen anything yet.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.