I’m not a kid, true that. I was born in 1956 and can recall Rocky and His Friends, the first episodes of The Flintstones, Beany and Cecil (my childhood fave) and even Calvin and the Colonel, which I hated because it wasn’t funny and had lousy theme music. Yeah, old Doc Toon watched the first incarnation of Alvin and the Chipmunks, which was then known as The Alvin Show, Joe Oriolo’s Trans-Lux version of Felix the Cat, Top Cat, and the many, many public domain cartoons shown on local kiddie shows. Oh yeah, and the trips to the movies to see the latest Disney features.
This partial catalog does not even begin to touch the countless Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies, and Popeye cartoons I ingested, along with many glasses of Bosco chocolate milk. (A funny aside; I once went to a July 4th parade as a small kid, and when a band went by playing The Star-Spangled Banner, I told my dad: “That’s the music from Popeye!”). The one upside of being a superannuated toonhead: I can at least offer you the perspective of someone who was there for virtually all of television’s animated history.
About these toons: they were all animated on cels using ink and paint, contained no special effects (unless you count sound effects), and few contained any mode of animation that wasn’t limited in scope. Re-used scenes were common from week to week, backgrounds ran in repeated cycles if a character was driving a vehicle or running, and never were there more than two dimensions to a drawing, as if that were an unbreakable law of physics.
You’ve seen your last one. They’re over, done, they won’t be back. To paraphrase Sir Christopher Wren’s son in his famous epitaph for his father, “If you seek their monuments, look around for the DVDs.” There are no longer any television cartoons in existence produced by the hand-drawn method, and the transition to digital animation has been so unobtrusive that casual fans had no idea it even happened.
To wit: “Traditional” animation done on cels with ink and paint began around 1914 or 1915 when Earl Hurd and John Bray discovered a method that would save time animating backgrounds (which had to be drawn on rice paper countless times, one for each exposure. Jitters in the animation were absolutely guaranteed, since no device could keep sheets of paper in perfect register. Cels spelled the end of the “slash” system in animation, in which holes were cut in the background sheet, and the sheet was then placed over a moving character.
The transition from paper to cels across animation studios took less than five years, and the results were visible to audiences; Backgrounds no longer trembled, and the sometimes sloppy cutaway lines of the slash system no longer appeared around the characters. Cels, being transparent, could be overlaid for an illusion of depth, so that a character could walk past an object, partially obscuring it in a realistic manner. This system, with few refinements, endured for nearly ninety years (color, both three-strip, and later Technicolor, was an advance in film processing, not animation).
In the case of digital animation, the transition was so seamless that most television audiences never noticed. Indeed, many casual observers never knew that some of their favorite shows had switched over to paperless animation techniques, or that Cintiq pads now functioned as the animator’s pencils. Popular fare such as SpongeBob SquarePants and The Simpsons stopped using cels in mid-stream. The last animated television show to exclusively soldier on in hand-drawn animation was Danny Antonucci’s Ed, Edd, and Eddy, but by 2004 the show switched to digital video as well. Paint has also gone the way of ink: color is done through the use of digital “fills”, and ancient inkpots now sit dessicated on dusty shelves. Toon Boom Harmony, Animo, and other power-puncher programs are the new tools of animation. Flash CS6 can now do anything that once required an entire animation staff at Warner Bros.
Describing the changes in 3D CGI animation on the small screen is worthy of a book in itself, and there are in fact several good ones available. While the transition from traditional TV animation to digital was subtle, the initial appearance of CGI animation on the small screen was revolutionary. The first acknowledged show using CGI, Insektors, made its debut in 1993-94. Its impact was minimal due to primitive animation, unappealing character designs, and a generally uninteresting storyline. ReBoot, which hit the screen in 1994-95, established CGI as the coming medium of small-screen animation.
ReBoot featured human characters, a storyline tied to computers, and scripts that veered into heady adult themes. The animation was also more refined than that of Insektors; Vancouver’s Mainframe/Alliance Studio had a dedicated CGI team working with (then) cutting edge Silicon Graphics hardware in conjunction with the Softimage animation program. Creators Ian Pearson, John Grace, Gavin Blair and Phil Mitchell were already proficient, having worked on some of the nascent CGI videos shown on MTV.
From these beginnings – a mere twelve years ago – CGI animation proliferated on television. From the mightiest superhero adventures to the most unassuming preschool productions, CGI has assumed a major role in TV animation. Although
In 1997, maverick animation producer John Kricfalusi discovered that a program called Flash, developed by Macromedia, could produce passable animation. Flash-based cartoons were, of course, also uploadable to the Internet. Creators watched Kricfausi’s groundbreaking series The Goddamn George Liquor Program and realized that, with a few bucks, some skill, and a bit of creativity, they could bypass the network suits. Contracts, censorship, and corporate ownership of characters could be eliminated. Kricfalusi’s series was more than just the last laugh on Viacom, which had parted him from his popular creations Ren and Stimpy; it was the first shot in what turned out to be a full-scale revolution. Flash animation made the jump over to television when Showtime broadcast the Web series Whirlgirl on its premium cable channel. A simultaneous webcast was aired, and two worlds came together in the name of progress.
By the early 1990s the Internet was filled with sites such as Icebox, AtomFilms, Camp Chaos, and Newgrounds, among others. Shows such as Mike Reiss’ Hard Drinkin’ Lincoln entertained audiences along with Queer Duck (also by Reiss), the cheerfully gory Happy Tree Friends (Rhode Montijo, Kenn Navarro, and Aubrey Ankrum), and Rob LaZebnik’s Starship Regulars. Anyone with sufficient time and money could now take a shot at creating and directing the next Bugs, Homer, Woody, or Popeye. Even though many of the Web Cartoon sites sank along with the legendary dot.com bust that marked the new millennium, the cartoons did not. More powerful and versatile versions of Flash made creating them even easier.
The five short years from 1994 to 1999 comprised a revolution that was unprecedented in animation history. Not only did the technology of the entire medium change, that same technology made everyone who wished to give it a try a potential creative force. Even the failures and missteps could be considered the price of adaptation and growing pains.
And so back to ReBoot, which itself rebooted in its third season (1997). By this time the look of the show had changed drastically, mostly due to updates in software technology. The original Softimage 3D program had been augmented by GRIN, a proprietary program that allowed improved synchronization between facial expression and dialogue. Mainframe Studio also booted up a rendering program, Mental Ray, to support the existing technology. Mental Ray had the ability to produce distortion-free texture maps, and soon ReBoot was in the forefront of CGI animation for the small screen.
ReBoot never made it to a fifth season. In 2007, the property’s new owner, Rainmaker Animation, proposed a trilogy of feature-length film based on the series but these plans never came to fruition. Although the show’s many fans remain deeply disappointed, there is solace to be had: ReBoot will always be the defining symbol of a silent, ongoing revolution. While it is true that CGI feature films, beginning with Toy Story (1995) were highly visible and widely regarded, the changes in television animation took place mostly behind the scenes. They were encoded into startling new software programs that not only entertained millions, but gave those same millions a chance to entertain each other.
As with most of entertainment technology, there is no predicting where the improvements and advances will end, and it is likely that only those working in the medium will fully appreciate and understand them. The only certainty is that ninety years will not pass before animation radically changes again. Whatever animation fans are watching on television today, the next generation will surely be looking at something entirely different. And wonderful.
--Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.