After almost 30 years working all over the world in the animation industry, a couple of years ago I found myself drawn to the idea of passing on everything I had experienced and learned in the world of animation to the next generation of young people crazy enough to want to make a career and a life out of making cartoons. A wonderful opportunity presented itself, and now here I am in my third year of heading an animation program at the Vancouver Film School. Watching students graduate into an industry, which is bubbling over with new opportunities that werent there 10 or 20 years ago.
The business is booming! Feature films and television series are being produced right here at home, fewer and fewer of them being sent overseas, to be churned out by cheap laborers there. Technology has given us a gift the gift of the repatriation of the animation industry. It has come back home, but is it here to stay? I, for one certainly hope so. So lets take a good look at how we got here and where were going now. Oh, and keep in mind I always approach this from my twisted Canadian perspective, so American, becomes North American, OK? The American animation industry has always been populated heavily with Canadian frost-backs, so bear with me on that point. Im skewed. (Twelve years of my career was spent in L.A. and Florida!)
Back in the early to mid-60s, those of us who are old enough to remember, would wait every week for Saturday morning to come, so we could watch our favorite cartoons (in black and white) on our local television network. In my case, there were only two channels available, and I would switch back and forth to catch my favorite cartoons. The world seemed like a relatively simple, safe, predictable place at the time. What most of us didnt know though, was that we were witnessing the last gasp of a classical art form, some of the last cartoons to be 100% Made in America for a long, long, time to come.
While much of the technology of broadcasting, radio and video production was growing and changing quickly behind the scenes at the time, the film and animation businesses were pretty much using the same equipment and technology that they had since the early 1900s. Cartoons were still painstakingly drawn on paper, traced onto acetate cels and shot on massive camera stands onto 35mm film. Until the animation union shake-ups of the mid-60s, animated films were made at home, a North American product, made by North American artists on North American soil. Even though studios like Hanna-Barbara had introduced a dumbed-down version of the animated cartoon by heavily and sometimes tastelessly exploiting the concept of limited animation, (creatively handled by the likes of Chuck Jones earlier on) there was still quite a bit of originality, fun and quality in much of the animation programming being produced.
There was a remarkably wide variety of wholesome cartoon programming being offered up by the major animation studios at that time. Shows like The Pink Panther, The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, The Jetsons, Top Cat, Astro Boy, Atom Ant, Secret Squirrel, Aquaman, The Bugs Bunny Show, The Road Runner Show, Space Ghost Alvin and the Chipmunks, Dino Boy, The New Adventures of Superman, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Hercules, Rocket Robinhood, The New Casper Cartoon Show, The Beatles, Roger Ramjet, The Porky Pig Show, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Huckleberry Hound, Johnny Quest, Milton the Monster, Krazy Kat, Underdog, Spider-Man, Shazzan, Supercar, Speed Racer, Quick Draw McGraw, Magilla Gorilla, and believe it or not, the list could go on!
Studios like DePatie Freleng, Hanna-Barbara, Paramount Cartoon Studios and Filmation Assoc., were pumping out absolutely incredible numbers of shows, and thousands of animation artists were gainfully employed. Clokey Productions was busy turning out episode after episode of the charming stop motion series, Davey and Goliath, and the ever-popular Gumby Adventure Series, the first real 3D animation to enjoy such mass appeal.
But in the mid-60s, with unions pushing for higher wages and better benefits, the animation machine came under a great deal of strain, and costs soon became too unmanageable for the studios to bear. Hanna-Barbara, rather than bowing under the pressure, started sending its ink-and-paint work to Manila, where costs could be kept way down. Many animation artists at that time were furious, seeing it as a cheap money grab, designed to put them out of work, so that a few top executives at the studio could strike it rich. But the studio heads had a much different story, of production costs spinning out of control, and the business of making cartoons simply becoming impossible to manage successfully.
Either way, it was a gut-wrenching episode in animation history, and all the studios and animation artists felt the crunch. Several of the big studios shut right down, and productions were reduced drastically at others. And so began the mass layoffs, particularly of ink-and-paint departments, as studios either downsized, shut down, or started sending their ink-and-paint work overseas.
The first thing to go was the ink-and-paint departments, the lowest paid of all the animation slaves, (largely made up of women, working in a still relatively male-dominated industry) but it was only a matter of time before the studios started sending their in-betweens to be done overseas, and not long after that they started sending animation. By the early to mid-70s, the outsourcing of Saturday morning cartoon productions was the norm. Studios that used to employ hundreds of animation artists, now employed handfuls of artists in comparison. Storyboards, location, character and effects design packs, scripts, sound recording, dialogue breakdown and layouts were often kept in-house, depending on the production. More and more, as little work as possible was done in-house, and the more that could be sent overseas to Asia or India, the better for cost control.
Now this is all written from an objective point of view, but as an artist entering into the industry in the mid-70s, I definitely developed some pretty strong, far from objective opinions about the whole outsourcing approach to making animated films. Of course everybody knows that the actual quality of the animation, the design of the characters, the effects animation, the lip sync, everything suffered, and a lot of the shows being produced during this era are just horrible to look at. Many cartoon series during this regrettable era were reduced to talking heads, with a ridiculously low drawing count per foot.
I actually made a vow to myself at that time, not to ever work on a TV series, based on what I was seeing on the tube. I had gotten into the animation business because of films like Pinocchio and Fantasia. I regarded the big studios churning out this kind of animation as a bunch of money-grubbing parasites clinging to the neck of my beloved, magical animation culture. To me it was simply hideous work, with no creative integrity whatsoever, and it went against every reason I had to initially get into the animation industry.
However, legions of my closest friends in the industry worked their fingers to the bone to create these lack-luster, half-baked TV shows that nobody would ever want to put on a demo reel. After all, everyone has to make a living. It was all a lot of dedicated animation artists could do just to survive. I was fortunate enough to find work at places like the National Film Board of Canada in the late 70s, and into the 80s, on big budget feature films, television specials and television commercials that kept me going. And so I thankfully escaped the unspeakable horror of working in an uninspired, rubberstamp cartoon factory.
For a period of time in the 70s, many features and most television specials in the U.S. and in Canada. shows like Richard Williams Raggedy Ann & Andy, Nelavanas The Cosmic Christmas and The Devil and Daniel Mouse, Walt Disneys feature animation projects and Ralph Bakshis films, were still being produced entirely on domestic soil. (Much of Raggedy Ann & Andy being made in London.) This was largely because the Asian and Indian studios still werent really trusted to produce quality animation, so the lower budgeted television series work went overseas, but if the budget for a show allowed it, there was still enough incentive to produce these higher quality shows at home.
The outsourcing industry was always a prickly, difficult process. Revisions and re-doing scenes was hotly contested by the overseas studios, (and still are to this day) and shows would be held hostage until the deadline loomed large, and the producers would have to compromise and accept shabbily finished work in order to meet their broadcast dates. Studios typically sent directors and supervisors overseas in an effort to control the outcomes, but language and cultural barriers still made the process messy and problematic at best. Communication in a foreign language, and in an awkward time zone, was frequently next to impossible.
But the pros outweighed the cons from a financial point of view, and, arguably, if outsourcing hadnt been a possibility, the animation industry may have tanked a lot worse than it did! And all the while too, the overseas studios slowly improved. Their animators matured and became more proficient. Native creative supervisors overseas learned their trade, and learned the language, and became more invested in caring about the quality of the animation they were producing.
A neat sidebar to all this was that Canada was able to get outsourced service work as well as Asia and India, as there was a lot of talent in Canada, and the Canadian dollar made good business sense to many Hollywood cartoon studios. When I was working on the pilot for Ren & Stimpy with John K. in Hollywood, the ink-and-paint work was all going up to Bardel Animation in Vancouver, and the entire show eventually was produced up in Canada, as were many shows during this period, which served to keep a few studios and animation artists up north alive, and ready to jump into the next phase of the animation industrys metamorphosis.
As the 90s approached, a very wonderful thing happened for all of us who had dedicated their lives to animation. Animation was to suddenly and miraculously rise up from the dead, reborn, fresh, snappy, popular and enjoyable, thanks to some idealistic madmen, and some very clever cartoonists, writers, directors and producers who had never given up on the art of animation and its immense potential as a major form of entertainment. I think we can thank the early geniuses of the cartoon industry, the Tex Averys, Chuck Joneses, Bob Clampetts and Walt Disneys, whose early work continued to successfully entertain generation after generation with quality animation entertainment, on endless television reruns, least we forget the real magic of animation.
On a side note, I apologize to the legions of animation fans that grew up on some of the worst animation in the history of the art form, and still love the shows they came to love in the 70s and 80s. I know there are devout fans out there. I may criticize this animation for its lack of artistic integrity, but it is interesting to observe, that even in its lowest form, animation still captured young peoples imaginations like nothing else. But lucky for all of us, a Rabbit named Roger, and a slob named Homer, were about to help bring about a revival the likes of which nobody could have anticipated.
In 1988, Robert Zemeckis and Richard Williams and their colleagues managed to convince a lot of people to spend a lot of money on a very risky project. I dont have to waste my breath here explaining or describing or analyzing Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but its impossible to exaggerate the films impact on the animation industry, whether you actually like the film or not. (I actually know several sad, lonely souls who are so critical of Roger Rabbit that they couldnt find it in themselves to enjoy it!) Historically, Roger Rabbit was an earth-shattering revelation. While being produced by Disneys Touchstone Pictures and Steven Spielbergs Amblin Ent., Roger Rabbit marked the first time that characters like Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck and Donald Duck were able to all meet up on one movie screen.
Wow! For an old long-time fan like me who had watched animation all but die in the 70s and 80s, this was an animation orgasm! Combining live-action, animation, and an intriguing storyline, complete with a femme fatale, in a way that appealed to Joe Public was a stroke of genius. Quite suddenly, animation was a big-time box-office success, and everyone took notice. It was incentive enough for Disney and others to get their heads out of their asses, and start putting some real resources back into their films, returning to something approaching a magical art form once again.
And then along came Homer Simpson.
When I first laid eyes on The Simpsons, my pretensions of artistic integrity wouldnt allow me to accept it as a high-quality show. There are those who would still argue that it is trash, and those who would argue it is high art, but, regardless of your opinion, the success of The Simpsons cant be understated, and it even grew on me over the years, largely because of my youngest son catching onto it. Everybody knows, it was the writing that made it work. Matt Groenings artwork definitely has appeal on some level, but the true genius lies elsewhere. I dont plan my viewing time around it; you dont have to. After all these years, its still on television more often than any other series, animated or live-action that I can think of.
The Simpsons was produced at several different studios over the past 18 years, both domestic and overseas, but mostly in South Korea. During the first three seasons, Klasky Csupo was the studio handling all the production domestically, but due to scope and popularity of the show, Klaskys small studio was overwhelmed, and the show ended up being subcontracted to an overseas studio in South Korea and Fox later transferred the U.S. production work to Film Roman. Regardless of where The Simpsons was being produced, it undeniably sparked an interest in animation that has spawned an incredible boom domestically, the crest of the wave of which we are still riding well into the 21st century!
Animation, as we all know, has enjoyed a revival of epic proportions in the last 15 years or so. Within that timeframe, there have been bumps and gullies to be sure, but for the most part, it has risen exponentially, giving rise to more animation, in more formats than we ever would have dreamed of in the past. And with that popularity, the technology has finally caught up with animation and pushed it into the fourth dimension. Digital ink and paint for 2D, 2.5D hybrids, CGI, Flash and an astonishing plethora of animation software and hardware tools, have changed everything about the production pipeline of animation, almost beyond recognition. But, its all cartoons, and they are bigger and better than ever!
Saturday morning? We now have several 24-hour a day television cartoon channels! And primetime network television is bursting at the seams with more and more so-called adult cartoon shows.
The surge of animations popularity dovetailed perfectly with the arrival of the Internet, which suddenly became the worlds biggest cartoon fest, and Macromedias Flash, became the tool of choice for online content, introducing animation to millions of people who had never had it so accessible to them. However, animation aficionados, this one included, failed to see the potential at first glance. The vast majority of online Flash animation was very poorly executed, and downright nasty in many cases. The principles of timing, physics, acting performance, weight, design and decent effects animation were all missing. I remember feeling like it was dumbing down animation even worse than the catastrophic animation of the 70s and 80s. Joe Public was getting used to the lowest form of animation ever!
But this gloomy cloud had a silver lining. As Flash artists learned more and more about animation, a few of them migrated away from the Internet and found themselves working the animation studios. Lots of studios will holler, We did it first! but whatever the case may be, the transformation of Flash into a tool for creating television series cartoons was a rapid one. In Vancouver, Bardel Animation, who had been primarily a service studio doing traditional animation and ink-and-paint work for the major studios, developed a little gem created in Flash called Mr. Dink, which became a landmark cross-platform cartoon short format series, showing up on Atom/Shockwave on the Web and on the CTV Comedy Network as well. It didnt take long before Bardel had adapted Flash to work for the WB television series, ¡Mucha Lucha!, and, shortly thereafter, many other studios followed suit.
Here in Vancouver where I live and work now, several studios are using Flash to create television shows, like Studio B Productions, who has Being Ian, Yakkity Yak and The Amazing Adrenaline Brothers; the wildly successful Atomic Betty from Atomic Cartoons and Stories from the 7th Fire from Bardel. There is lots more going on, and when you realize that this much Flash animation is being produced in Vancouver alone, it really is quite apparent that there is a repatriation happening in the animation industry! It is worth noting, that many of the successful series we are seeing on television today got their start on the Internet, as simple, animated shorts created independently by unknown animators armed only with computers, the Flash program, some time on their hands, and some quirky, inventive creativity.
A short time ago, all of these shows would have been sent off to Asia or India to be animated, colored and composited, but digital tools have made it possible for these productions to stay home, where I think they belong. And Flash isnt the only player in this game. Toon Booms Harmony package is making inroads as well, and for good reason. While Flash is an affordable program, and people have gotten used to its idiosyncrasies, Flash is simply not designed for animation, and every single step of the way dealing with Flash, is a kind of work-around solution.
There are those who swear by it, and it certainly is great for some things, but it is not an animation pipeline friendly program, period. Its greatest strength is that its cheap as chips, and thats the bottom line. Macromedia doesnt care enough to develop a more animation friendly program, because animation represents far too little of their market. Toon Boom, on the other hand, is working with artists in the animation industry in an attempt to design a tool that is truly designed for the animation pipeline. Working closely with Nelvana and Mercury Filmworks, Toon Boom has developed Harmony, which can do everything Flash does, only better, and it approaches all of its development with consideration of the animation industries needs.
Yes, its a lot more expensive than Flash, and there are always bugs to work out, but time will tell whether or not Flash will continue to dominate this new market that has, much to my delight, brought so much work back onto North American soil. I hope that the industry will heartily support the development of better, more intuitive software designed with the animation pipeline in mind to make the process smoother and smoother, which could pave the way to ensure that the work which has returned to North America, will stay here!
Another very positive aspect in which these new cartoon series are being produced, is that programs like Flash and Harmony take away the need for the old traditional animation hierarchy, and put far more creative input into the hands of the animation artists. An entry level studio artist in the old days of animation could expect to land a tedious job, grinding out endless repetitive inbetweens, completely separated from the higher creative process, simply a tiny cog in a big machine. Todays Flash crews are compact and work in teams. An entry-level artist gets to work on every aspect of an animated film: animation, lip sync, layout, camera moves, effects animation, etc. Flash animators today will actually work closely with the directors storyboard notes shortly after entering into a production, and are able to have a real creative impact on a show. They know the story behind the scene or sequence they are working on. These were foreign concepts to the worker bees behind the scenes in old school cartoon factories. It will be exciting to see where these artists take us in the next 10 or 20 years, having a better sense earlier on in their careers of the actual animation filmmaking process.
Its interesting to note that, while the first thing to go overseas back in the 60s was ink and paint. Today a studio like Mercury Filmworks, in Vancouver and Ottawa, is now doing brisk business intercepting animation done in overseas studios, and doing their digital ink-and-paint magic with it here at home, as well as doing an enormous amount of Flash style animation using Toon Booms Harmony. Quality has actually become a consideration again. What a concept! Some of the most simply designed, limited animation shows on television today are really quite good looking, clever and tight. Old school cartoon physics are reappearing more and more, and students coming out of schools all over North America are finding that there is actually a healthy, booming animation industry waiting for them.
So, what can we do to ensure that this work doesnt wander overseas again? Studios are already starting to send Flash work overseas. At first, it was impossible. The service studios overseas only knew how to follow directions with a traditionally animated show, with all of its poses and lip sync previously worked out for them. Actually understanding the content of the show, following the story and being able to work as animation filmmakers was a foreign concept to most of them. But the learning curve is diminishing, and the desire to get the work that they have been losing back, has spurred them on. Studios in India and Asia are hungry to get back in on the enormous animation boom of the 21st century.
Heres my idea, idealistic as I was back in the 70s, but its a plan where everybody wins. We need to help encourage the overseas studios to develop their own animation cultures, like Japan has done with such resounding success. Their dependence on North American animation needs to be diminished, as does our dependence on them. Its not healthy. Its fraught with difficulty, and it does nothing to honor and grow our respective cultures. Repatriation belongs everywhere. So I think we should continue to push the industry in that direction. Many people already are. The size and potential of the new Chinese market that is opening up is staggering. Should they be doing our low paid animation slave work for us, or developing their own culture? The answer is obvious. And leads to my final repatriation soapbox stand
We all holler about Nike and Martha Stewart using sweatshops to produce their merchandise, but we have turned the other cheek while the animation industry does much the same. Perhaps to a far lesser scale on the slavery side of things, and there are artists overseas who enjoy their work, but at the end of the day it would be far more rewarding for them to decrease their dependency on foreign work and create their own animation culture. Who knows? They could probably teach us a thing or two, as Japan has with its risky, innovative, cutting edge style of animation storytelling, which has challenged our timid, politically correct, formula-based animation feature industry to rethink the way it makes movies.
We need to support the development of better, more fluid animation software as well, to ensure that production can still be kept here at home. Maybe even take a chance on investing in this development, taking a bit of a financial hit in order to shore up our businesses for the future. Is it such an idealistic leap of faith to suggest that we invest in the young animation artists who are pouring into and out of our animation schools? To ensure that they will find a robust and vitalized industry when they graduate? The digital revolution has created fantastic opportunities for us to flourish. Lets take the bull by the horns and make this industry grow, rather than send it back overseas again, falling into an endless cycle of creation and destruction. Repatriation forever I say!
(Authors note: This entire story could be transposed on the animation industry in Europe, where history took the same turns, within a slightly different timeframe. Outsourcing has zigzagged all over the planet, between countless nations, in an attempt to keep the costs of producing animation to a minimum.)
In his 30-year animation career, Joseph Gilland has worked with studios as diverse Walt Disney Feature Animation and the National Film Board of Canada. He has worked on all styles of animation, experimental films, television series, commercials, theatrical feature films, stop motion, title sequences, live-action films and documentaries. He is currently the head of the Classical and Digital Character Animation programs at the Vancouver Film School, and writing a passionate book about the art of animation.