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Dr. Toon: Silent Revolution

Dr Toon recounts the pivotal years from 1994-2000, when TV animation underwent crucial changes in production technology.

Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones and Bugs Bunny © Hanna-Barbera; ™ & © 2001 Cartoon Network. An AOL Time Warner Company.

All rights reserved; © AOL Time Warner.

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).

The Cintiq by Wacom.

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.

An old cel from The Simpsons.

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.

Insektors © Fantome