World Magazine, Issue 2.6, September 1997
by Chris Robinson
"To be called an Oscar nominee pales next to being able to call myself a Sesame Street animator."
- Paul Fierlinger
"What [MTV] should be lauded for is that it has increased the visual sensibilities, the visual palettes of an entire generation. It's expanded how people see. So, that's a great thing."
- Candy Kugel, Buzzco and Associates
Jane Aaron's X Song uses stop-motion
animation to introduce Sesame Street viewers
to, [what else?] the letter "X." © CTW
Despite a prosperity of pages devoted to animation over the last decade, few have dealt with the enormous influence and impact of the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) and MTV on the animation industry, and indeed, the media industry as a whole. Long before the likes of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were creating artist driven shows, MTV was producing hip interstitials created by independent animators. Long before MTV, CTW was also complimenting their shows with independent animation. Now, CTW and MTV might seem like strange bedfellows, but they actually have a great deal in common. From a negative perspective, both have been routinely criticized by artists for their stinginess, and for years have been accused of stunting the attention spans of the younger generation. But without a doubt, their positive impact on the animation industry outweighs the negatives. First and foremost, they were the first two companies to find consistent commercial uses for independent animators. This has had a huge impact on the animation industry in a variety of ways: it has provided much needed jobs for animators, brought their work beyond the festival circuit and to the general public, energized the New York animation scene, garnered critical respect for commercial animation, influenced the advertising and feature film industry, and arguably, paved the way for today's boom in animation.
Henry Selick created many i.d.s and shorts for MTV during the 1980s. Shown here is the stop-motion Dollhouse M (still and production shot), Contortion M, and Bathtub M. Photos courtesy of Henry Selick.
The Roots of CTW and MTV
Certainly CTW and MTV did not evolve out of thin air. UPA's limited, affordable, and simple style first made people believe that it was even possible to do animation for television. This had an enormous influence on Hanna-Barbera and Filmation, whose appropriation of UPA's style opened the doors for television animation in the 1960s, and paved the way for CTW. Fortunately, CTW adapted UPA's more positive elements. They created smart films, like Gerald McBoing Boing, that appealed to children, but did not talk down to them. UPA, along with Paramount, who Linda Simensky of Cartoon Network says, was "more UPA than UPA," had been producing independent inspired shorts thirty years before CTW. In fact, the UPA influence extended right down to CTW hiring UPA people like Howard Beckerman and John Hubley.
CTW's notion of combining animation and education was also not digging up any new ground. Disney produced many "educational" shorts as did Bell Labs for their Science series. The Bell Science series combined live-action with animated shorts created by Shamus Culhane, Chuck Jones, and Friz Freleng, among others. The series obviously had an important influence on CTW in their using animation to make an educational subject more entertaining. But, CTW was the first company to combine consistently education and entertainment. By doing this they found an on-going commercial use for independent animators, and brought independent animation to a wider audience.
Despite an almost entirely different mandate, MTV, in many ways, owes its existence to CTW. Aside from 1970's LP cover art, former MTV producer Fred Seibert acknowledges the tremendous influence of CTW. "I'd say the two biggest influences on what we did were straight cartoons (i.e. Flintstones, Bugs Bunny) and Sesame Street. Sesame Street was important because they dealt in short form and they were willing to use all sorts of styles."
Buzz Potamkin, who worked on the first MTV Top of The Hour, notes, "If CTW had not been there, the audience for MTV would never have appeared because it was the visual education that you got from CTW. We had long discussions in 1981/82 about the fact that it could only work if the audience was prepared for the syntax and CTW had paved the way for that syntax to work: the combination of live-action and animation, the short attention spanned verse."
The Birth of CTW and Artists' Reactions
CTW began in 1969 in New York. As Linda Simensky, the inspiration behind the Sesame Street 25th Anniversary screenings, has noted, Sesame Street producers complimented their program with animation because it was an ideal "technique for creating incongruity." Initially the animation shorts were done by Executive Producer, Dave Connell's Imagination Films. However, the producers wanted the animation to act as short, highly produced commercials that would be repeatable. They wanted a very broad look. This led to hiring independent animators like, for example, Paul Fierlinger.
Karen Aqua created Tempo in a series of shorts about
the basic concepts of music. © CTW
"I made my first film for them in 1971," says Fierlinger, creator of Teeny Little Superguy. He had just arrived from Czechoslovakia at the time and was desperately in need of work. "In those days [Producer] Edith Zornow would give me a curriculum. The curriculum has about thirty pages dealing with what topics they want to address for the next season (e.g. letter A, figure 8, love, backwards-forward). They made about 180 programs a year in the early days. To this day, working with Sesame Street is a great asset. It has got me work. It has got me commercials. [Commercial clients] don't want Sesame Street, of course, but they know you are a good animator if you've worked there."
Sally Cruikshank, known for her surreal, musical influenced work, started with CTW in 1988. "[They] sent three songs and that is how it started," explains Cruikshank. "[I] didn't use the curriculum, I've had a really easy time [essentially] just adapting songs. Arlene Sherman [CTW producer] has been tuned into my musical interest, so she has chosen appropriate music. I've really liked working with them because they give you complete freedom and they're very supportive and non-interfering. I wish there were more work like that available."
Sally Cruikshank has lent her distinct neo-thirties style to several
Sesame Street spots, including From Your Head, a music video
teaching kids about using their imagination. © CTW
New York based animator, Jane Aaron has done numerous shorts like River, Lake, and Next to Song for Sesame Street since the early 1990s. "I pretty much see what they need. I propose an idea based on the curriculum. Arlene really understands the work conceptually and I think she understands that she is working with artists. [Arlene knows how to] combine the artist's vision and the curriculum. They are always interested in an unusual look. Their values are good. They really care about human and democratic values. They are all inclusive. This is a great thing to give to kids."
Animator Karen Aqua came into contact with CTW around 1989. CTW's willingness to allow her a freedom to experiment has remarkably led to a bridging of her two creative worlds, her personal films and her commercial films. The 3D characters in her personal short, Perpetual Motion were originally worked out in a Sesame Street piece. "Creatively, I am very happy to have them on my reel and submit them to festivals. Once we get beyond the concept, they are essentially my own little projects. There is a satisfaction in knowing that you have gotten your concept across unlike your own work where you are never sure if the idea got across. I like the sense of completeness."
And what exactly is this thirty page curriculum that everyone talks about? Arlene Sherman explains, "[The curriculum] expands each year. Everything is done through scrupulous research to make sure that its educationally correct. And after the pieces are produced it is tested with children to see what their comprehension and attention is. We have seminars with pre-school educators, psychologists, parents, writers, creative people and talk about what we should teach next. Our whole modus operation with the entertainment and charm is to get the kids ready for school."
CTW's impact has extended far beyond the personal experiences. As Buzz Potamkin notes, "I've always been very appreciative of their ability to support animation during the really dark days of animation in the late 1970s and 1980. A lot of people in New York would not be in animation today if it were not for the fact that CTW had been there for them."
Aeon Flux started as a segment on Liquid Television,
then became a full series on MTV. © MTV Networks.
MTV launched in August of 1981. "Bob Pitman, Allan Goodman and myself," says Fred Seibert, "thought about animating little network pieces. We had no idea what pieces to animate, but we thought that animation would be a cool thing to do. Cartoons seemed to be the closest visual equivalent to rock and roll. We had grown up during the days of LP design and we wanted to make pieces that were as impactful on the video generation as album covers had been on ours. We wanted to create essentially the notion of the moving album cover."
Of course, to create the "moving album cover," one first needs animators. "We didn't know anything about festivals. We didn't know anything about ASIFA," adds Seibert. "We bought an animation issue of Millimeter magazine and called everyone that was listed. And then we looked at hundreds of reels." One of the pieces that really got Seibert's eye was an advertisement done by a New York company called Perpetual Motion Pictures.
"We [Perpetual Motion] did an ad for a San Francisco radio station," says Buzz Potamkin. "I don't know why but part of [the motivation] was artistic and part was simply [necessity]. We used photos with acetate over them and worked magic marker on top of that. Andy Warhol was doing Interview magazine covers and [we wondered] what it would look like if we did this in animation. Dale Pon, who was at NBC radio and audience development, was extremely supportive. He later became the ad agency for MTV. In Spring '81, Dale calls me and says these crazy guys on 6th Avenue are doing this thing called music television. They really needed a Top of the Hour, but didn't know what they wanted. Dale had shown them the radio ad we did and they were very interested in that. That was the start of the relationship. That campaign forced MTV onto Manhattan cable which is really what made MTV."
Animator Henry Selick (Slow Bob in The Lower Dimensions, James and The Giant Peach) took a somewhat different route to MTV in the late 1980s. "What they were doing in the station interstitials was pretty creative and I just figured that I could send in some work and they would love me immediately. It wasn't until I had a contact there, Peter Dougherty, that I started doing i.d.s for them. [There was] incredible freedom. I got to continue where I had left off after doing experimental films at CalArts. It was good for me. Every single piece I did for them I varied the style and technique so that I got to explore things that I'd wanted to do." Working for MTV didn't harm Selick's career either. "It helped. I had done a few independent short films but having stuff on MTV, people saw it. People were aware of [my work] and they enjoyed it."
Craig Bartlett created the 2D clay animation short, Lillian Big Sister for Sesame Street years
before going on to create the Hey Arnold! series for Nickelodeon. © CTW.
The Industry Makes a Change
The influence of CTW and MTV extends well beyond the artists and into the entire animation industry. Prior to MTV, television animation was extremely limited in technique. However, when diverse animation styles proved to be marketable, the entire industry took note and suddenly, a variety of diverse animations began appearing on television. In the mid-1980s, CBS' Pee-Wee's Playhouse, which appeared within a MTV/CTW influenced structure, brought striking and innovative designs, off-beat, and, at times, adult humor, along with the forgotten techniques of stop-motion and clay animation, to Saturday morning television.
Now it seems that everyone, except Disney and Warner, is hiring independent animators and allowing them to work in their own personal styles. Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network produce artist driven shows, including Rugrats and the recent "What A Cartoon!" shorts series that was started at Hanna-Barbera while Fred Seibert was president, respectively. Indeed, the very idea of an all-animation specialty channel like Cartoon Network would have been impossible before MTV's success. Although Klasky-Csupo carries a definite European influence, their diverse and unique designs (Santo Bugito, Duckman, Ahh! Real Monsters) would not have been possible for television without CTW and MTV.
"We really changed the game of visual vocabulary on television," adds Fred Seibert. "MTV opened up the door to saying visual vocabulary should be broad and it should be appropriate to the communication you are making. It should not be a copycat. I am very happy and proud of that we were able to break the back of the idea that only certain people were allowed to work in these mediums. Independent animators had always been shut out from the professional commercial world. I always thought that was just stupid."
Media Wide Pull
Thanks to the success of CTW and MTV, North American television and movie audiences are now able to see a diversity of styles and ideas. Animation features, previously limited to cute, traditional Disneyesque works, have exploded in recent years into a variety of styles from the computer animated, Toy Story to Tim Burton and Henry Selick's Nightmare Before Christmas to MTV's own off-beat Beavis and Butt-head Do America.
The awareness that animation sells has naturally expanded beyond the animation industry. More and more advertisers are using animation to sell their products. Animated commercials stand out from conventional live-action ads, and more importantly, CTW and MTV have created a generation of children and young consumers who trust animation. MTV and The Simpsons have made animation more fashionable, or "hipper," than ever before. Therefore, anyone seeing an animated commercial for a pair of shoes, is likely to think that those shoes must be pretty cool. Outside of superficialities though, many younger consumers have been psychologically groomed for the animated commercial. As Buzz Potamkin suggests, "CTW taught children to be observers of and believers in commercials because if commercials teach you how to count, they should also be able to teach anything like how to eat, what to drink, what to wear."
Ethics and psychology aside, the bottom line is that the advertising industry's current interest in animation has generated an increase in commercial animation houses, like J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, Inc., (Colossal) Pictures and Will Vinton Studios. All of whom, its interesting to note, have roots leading back to either CTW or MTV. The success has also opened up additional avenues for independent animators like Christine Panushka's Absolut Vodka Internet ad campaign which was very MTV influenced.
Honors By The Elite
In recent years, we have seen the influence of CTW and MTV come full circle. After years of feeding off the festival circuit, CTW and especially MTV are a regular presence in festival competitions. Karen Aqua's Sesame Street work has been shown at acclaimed festivals in Ottawa and Annecy. MTV Europe and MTV Japan, whose Top of The Hours have garnered awards in Ottawa and Holland, have had so many films in festival competitions it's impossible to begin to name them all.
CTW and MTV have also broken the often elitist boundaries of animation festivals. Increasingly, festivals are devoting a large portion of programming to commissioned work. In fact, one festival, the Holland Animation Film Festival, is the only animation festival with a competition devoted solely to commissioned films. Festival Director, Gerben Schermer notes, "MTV didn't influence the activities of the festival but it certainly helped us to explain to people what we were doing. We did the same kinds of things, only from a different background and for different reasons. Too many people underestimate the possibilities of animation film as a communication instrument. MTV helped to put animation on the map as an art form. It showed that animation is not only for children and can be a valuable instrument in communicating a product in a different and unique way." Despite Schermer's denial of any direct MTV influence, it seems hardly possible, given the lack of quality commercial work at the time, that a festival devoted to commissioned animation could have existed prior to MTV.
Stick Figure Theater, a series of shorts by Robin Steele for MTV's Liquid Television. Steele has since gone on to develop (with Nelvana) Stickin' Around, an animated series on Fox, and is now a director at Wild Brain. Stick Figure Theater (Left) © MTV Networks. Stickin' Around (Right) © Nelvana.
In general, the success of CTW and MTV has opened the doors for a resurgence of animation shorts. In addition to touring programs like Spike and Mike and the Tournee of Animation, more and more animation festivals are appearing. In fact traditionally biannual festivals like Annecy and Ottawa are now looking towards annual events to keep up with the increase of short work being entered. Also with the introduction of additional channels like TeleToon, a Canadian all-animation channel set to begin airing in October, there appears to be even more avenues opening up for independent animators.
Reaching Beyond the U.S.
Of course, festivals continue to serve as important venues for recruiting. In fact, thanks to the festival circuit, the influence of CTW, but more so, MTV has expanded beyond the borders of the USA. Animators like Canada's Marv Newland and Danny Antonucci, Poland's Piotr Dumala, Jerzy Kucia, and many others including England's The Quay Brothers, and Czech Jan Svankmajer, have all worked with MTV.
In Canada, outside of the National Film Board, there is no abundance of independent animation. Marv Newland's International Rocketship has been the rare exception of a thriving independent studio in Canada. Rocketship's i.d.s for MTV not only provided work for the studio, but they also provided some much needed exposure for Rocketship by bringing their own independent work to a larger audience. It has certainly paid off. Rocketship recently scored a commercial and artistic victory with their animated film, The Far Side, based on Gary Larson's strip. The film not only played on prime time television, but also won the Grand Prize at the 1995 Annecy Animation Festival.
Internationally, as Gerben Schermer notes, "It helped filmmakers to experiment with the film medium on the expenses of MTV. For example, the Quay Brothers made a few station calls for MTV Europe just do be able to express themselves without having to bother about the budget. Also a lot of filmmakers were able to use MTV as a showroom for their artistic skills."
MTV's new late-night animated series, Daria, grew out of a supporting
character on Beavis & Butt-head, a series which itself originally
stemmed from a short film by Mike Judge. Do you see a trend here?
© MTV Networks.
A Job Too Well Done?
MTV and CTW have significantly contributed to creating today's tough media market. It is cruelly ironic that CTW and MTV's success has spawned a multitude of impersonators who, in the end, have come back to haunt them. In order to compete, MTV and CTW must continue to innovate against an increase in television channels and programming, video games, CD-Roms, the Internet, and other distractions. Whatever the future will be, there is no denying the impact that CTW and MTV initially had on the animation and media industry. By taking a risk on independent animation during a time when animation was not very fashionable, they not only provided much needed work for many artists, while exposing them to larger audiences, they also made it profitable. On one level, it has been a relationship made in heaven. The artists, the animation and advertising companies, and the viewers have all benefited from CTW and MTV's investment in independent animation.
Thanks to all the people who gave their precious time to chat; Mo Slater for transcribing, HK and WJ for patience; and SAFO staff for not killing me (yet).
Chris Robinson is the Executive Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival, and the International Student Animation Festival of Ottawa (SAFO). When he is not stressing over festivals, he programs a monthly selection of exploitation films in Ottawa, and freelances for various magazines.
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