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'Makin’ Toons' Book Review

Fred Patten takes a look at Allan Neuwirth's new book about the American animation industry.

Sometimes you do not realize that a book is needed until it comes out. Popularized books about animation tend to be either histories of “classic” animation (anything before the 1970s), or studies of individual studios, filmmakers or titles. Makin’ Toons is for the reader who wants a good survey of modern animation: what have been the hot, new animated theatrical features and TV series of the past 20 years and today? Who made them and how did they come to get made?

Allan Neuwirth covers all this in Makin’ Toons, a chatty overview of the American animation industry since Who Framed Roger Rabbit revitalized what had been a dying art form. More than 20 hit titles are spotlighted. The movies include The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King, Toy Story, Ice Age, Fantasia/2000 and Monsters, Inc. The TV series include The Ren & Stimpy Show, The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-Head, The Tick, Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, SpongeBob SquarePants, Rugrats, Batman: The Animated Series, King of the Hill, South Park, Samurai Jack — if it came out since 1990, and it was at all popular, it is probably in here. (Neuwirth does make a distinction between mass popularity and cult popularity that fails to, “lure enough viewers for execs to justify keeping them on the air,” which explains why some critical favorites like Aeon Flux and Invader Zim are mentioned only in passing.)

Avoid the word “history,” which implies a study of something that is completed and of the past. Also avoid the “how to make” label, which implies a technical manual or textbook. Makin’ Toons combines the best of both forms. It is a blend of Neuwirth’s own essays and many informal “how we did it” interviews with the creators of the most popular toon movies and TV programs of today. The result is both an enjoyable history for the layman of what Neuwirth calls the toon boom era, the period that most of the general public will consider “today” — the new movies and TV hits that have appeared during their memories — and an inspirational series of pep talks by the men and women who have been responsible for this renaissance. This will be enlightening to the “man in the street” who has wondered, “Who is making the new cartoon hits since all those famous old guys like Walt Disney, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and Mel Blanc are dead?”

Who Framed Roger Rabbit rang in a re-birth in the world of animation. © Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit rang in a re-birth in the world of animation. © Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.

Makin’ Toons is an appropriate title because Neuwirth takes an occupational rather than a historic or artistic approach. It is reminiscent of those murder mysteries that keep describing the same event from the often very different viewpoints of the many witnesses. The introductory chapter, “What a Great Idea! How Some Tip-Top Toons Were Born,” comes the closest to being chronological and historical as it takes 13 megahits from Roger Rabbit in 1988, to Ice Age in 2002, and briefly describes how each progressed from conception to completion. “Putting It Together” focuses more closely upon just four titles, two theatrical (Shrek and The Little Mermaid) and two TV (The Simpsons and SpongeBob SquarePants) and presents their production histories in greater detail.

“Auteur! Auteur!” Who are the modern Tex Averys, the Chuck Joneses, the Jay Wards; the creators whose personal styles are so distinctive that even the uneducated John Q. Public will recognize their work even if he may not know their names? John Kricfalusi describes his vision for Ren & Stimpy and grossout humor; Genndy Tartakovsky tells how Dexter’s Laboratory came to be; Craig McCracken, who got his start on Dexter’s Lab, interjects the story of his The Powerpuff Girls; Tartakovsky returns to tell how he went on to Samurai Jack and Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-Head) tells how he evolved from a wannabe comedian and fan of cartoons into a self-taught animator inspired by the Spike & Mike Festivals.

John K’s Ren & Stimpy was a turning point for TV animation. Image courtesy of Nickelodeon.

John K’s Ren & Stimpy was a turning point for TV animation. Image courtesy of Nickelodeon.

“How Screenwriters and Story Artists Get Toons Moving,” or, “It all starts with the writer,” makes it sound like no movie or TV series can become successful without a basically solid story concept, whether the writers’ approach is through a typescript or art. Ben Edlund tells how he created The Tick as an independent comic book and it evolved into a TV series. Sue C. Nichols, a “vis dev person” (visual development) at Disney in the 1990s, was a key figure in the early stages of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin and Hercules, taking the studio’s initial decisions and fleshing them out. (“We would sit in on story sessions, and they’d say, ‘Okay, the Beast’s house is enchanted.’ It was our job to come up with why, what, all of that… so you’re just as much a story person as the storyboard people,” she explains. “If someone said, ‘We need a character who fulfills this function,’ then we could throw out several designs for them.”)

Brenda Chapman, the very first female director to helm a major studio’s animated motion picture (DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt), tells here how she, as one of the original storyboard artists on The Lion King, helped coax that troubled project into its final, megahit form. Andrew Stanton considered himself an animator when he joined Pixar, and was surprised to find himself coming up with ideas during the “seemingly endless series of revisions and rewrites” on Toy Story that became part of its basic story.

Beauty and the Beast’s Oscar nomination signaled Hollywood gaining respect for at art form. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Beauty and the Beast’s Oscar nomination signaled Hollywood gaining respect for at art form. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

But then the next chapter, “Ain’t That a Pretty Picture: Creating the Stunning Visuals of TV and Film Cartoons,” makes it sound like it’s the character designers and background artists who are really responsible for a production’s success. Scott Wills, background artist on Samurai Jack; Eric Radomski, stylist of the noir look of Batman: The Animated Series; Michael Giaimo, art director of Pocahontas; and others tell their stories.

Subsequent chapters focus upon directors (Rogers Allers and The Lion King; Chris Savino, a director on several series for The Cartoon Network; Pete Docter on directing computer graphics for Monsters, Inc., and Chris Wedge who did the same for Ice Age); animators (Andreas Deja who brought The Lion King’s Scar to life; John R. Dilworth who had to make Courage, the Cowardly Dog both cowardly and endearing; Eric Goldberg who made the Genie in Aladdin both grotesquely fantastic and recognizably Robin Williams); producers (Margot Pipkin, “mother” of The Simpsons; Paul Germain of Rugrats; Don Hahn who saw to it that what director Robert Zemeckis wanted done, got done in Who Framed Roger Rabbit); voice actors (from multi-voice stars like June Foray and Billy West to the story of the voice searches for particular characters, the villainess Ursula of The Little Mermaid and Sid the sloth of Ice Age); songwriters and composers (Alan Menken and Howard Ashman reinvent the animated theatrical musical feature for Disney); and a few closing comments on the business aspects of the Toon Boom.

Makin’ Toons jumps around so much that it works best as a kaleidoscopic potpourri; a sampler of all the frenetic activities that have hauled animation out of its embarrassing dead-end of TV babysitter during the ‘70s and ‘80s. The many “in their own words” stories are all so interesting that one wonders if Neuwirth only interviewed industry professionals who are excellent conversationalists. (One also wonders if the speakers realized that Neuwirth was going to leave the words in their dialogue that are usually replaced with euphemisms.)

The book is well illustrated on almost every double-page spread, mixing photographs of practically everyone interviewed with samples of the artists’ works from model sheets to background paintings. The art is only black-and-white, but the reproductions are very sharp. Neuwirth provides a bibliography and a good index.

Makin’ Toons is both fun to read, and is a key reference volume for any serious library about today’s animation industry.

Makin’ Toons: Inside the Most Popular Animated TV Shows and Movies, by Allan Neuwirth. NYC, Allworth Press, May 2003, xiii + 273 pages; ISBN: 1-58115-269-8 (trade paperback; $21.95).

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainment’s The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Animation in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by John A. Lent (2001).