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Help! I Love Watching Animated Shorts

The first of three essays written by noted historian, author, and educator Karl Cohen to bring awareness to the present state of indie animated shorts and to stimulate a discussion that might lead to improvements; we start with a discussion of the ways these shorts have reached the public since the decline of theatrical cartoons.

Three Essays About the State of Animation in the U.S.


Animation is a remarkable form of art that has gone through countless changes since pioneering filmmakers discovered that film can do more than just record the world around us. The three essays being published on AWN (one below, the next two every two weeks) are about works where artists have used this art to explore the world of imagination, free of time or content restraints.

I believe these precious creative moments are often ignored by our mainstream society that favors well-advertised and skillfully promoted Hollywood animated features and TV shows. While the seven-minute animated cartoon once played an important role in our moviegoing, entertaining you before the feature, today that role is obsolete. While there have been many attempts to establish new permanent homes for shorts since then, at present, there isn’t a great platform to find quality animation. The medium resolution of the internet is not the ideal delivery system, and it still lacks a sophisticated, satisfactory guide to help you find the films you might enjoy seeing.

The purpose of these three essays is to bring awareness to the present state of independently produced animated shorts and to stimulate a discussion that might lead to improvements. The first essay, “Help! I Love Watching Animated Shorts,” discusses some of the ways independently produced animated shorts have been shown to the public since the decline of theatrical cartoons.

The second discussion, “Why is the Nature of Animation in Europe So Different from What is Being Created in the U.S.?” covers why animation made in the U.S. and Europe evolved in different directions in the second half of the 20th century. I contend those changes eventually altered the mindset of U.S. animators, and I believe those differences are why international animated film festivals that once presented lots of animated shorts made in the U.S. are now largely ignoring them.

The third essay is a collection of well-thought-out comments about the current state of animation by members of the animation community. Those comments tend to support the thesis of this study.

Essay 1: Help! I Love Watching Animated Shorts

  • U.S. Animation in the 1960s and 1970s
  • Reagan Downsizes Govt. Spending by Cutting Budgets that Support the Arts
  • Animated Shorts for Teens and Adults
  • The Rise and Decline of Programs of Animated Shorts
  • International Animation on American TV
  • TV Never Developed as a Showcase for Independently Produced Animated Shorts
  • So, Where’s the Outlet Today for these Shorts?

U.S. Animation in the 1960s and 1970s

Some of animation’s most exciting moments are when you discover an inventive animated short that amazes you in some way. In the 1960s, the age of well-made Hollywood 35mm theatrical cartoons for families came to an end; only a few animated features were being made, and an industry was just getting started to make limited animation TV shows for kids. What was exciting for a lot of people was the blossoming 16mm film industry that was producing well-made animated television ads and non-theatrical animated shorts for schools and industry, and individuals creating impressive experimental personal films. There were also several non-theatrical 16mm distributors who were renting and selling films to schools, libraries, art museums and other groups.

In the 1960s and 1970s, corporations and our government funded a good number of those animated educational shorts as well as live-action films. One of the most innovative and accessible films is the partly animated Why Man Creates (1968) by Saul Bass, which discusses the nature of creativity. (It was produced by the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Company). It won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.

Another wonderful work is Lapis by James Whitney (1966). It is a meditative computer-generated film that depicts mandalas changing in time to a soundtrack of a magnificent Indian raga played by Ravi Shankar.

A growing number of individuals were discovering that creating animation on 16mm film was not only possible, but there was an audience and small market for this exciting form of art. In some cases, government agencies purchased prints to show the world that, in our democracy, Uncle Sam supported works ranging from traditional-looking films, to amazing experimental art such as Frank and Caroline Mouris’ Frank Film (1973) (prints of this animated collage of thousands of images were purchased by the U.S. Information Agency [USIA] to be shown abroad), and the whimsical mixed media Time Pierce (1965) by Jim Henson.

In San Francisco, Scott Bartlett, Jordan Belson, and others were using animation to develop new ways to express the personal feelings created when one uses psychedelics and/or meditation. They were creating works that expressed new kinds of aesthetic experiences, often using new emerging technology to create the images.

Vince Collins created mind-blowing psychedelic animation. He won a Student Academy Award for his short Euphoria (1975), and the same year his proposal for a USIA grant was accepted. Later in 1975, a “far out” burst of energy was shown on screens around the world. The film he created with that grant was 200, an experimental way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of our nation.

Vince may not have known it, but the government was using the films they obtained as positive Cold War propaganda. It showed that in our country we supported artistic freedom, while, behind the Iron Curtain, the state had the right to approve, censor, and ban art.

An ugly example of censorship from behind the Iron Curtain happened after Jan Svankmajer from Czechoslovakia won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Grand Prix at Annecy for his film Dimensions of Dialogue (1983). He was living in a Soviet-controlled nation, and unfortunately, the unimaginative Czech bureaucrats were alarmed that an artist they didn’t know was representing, at least in their minds, their country. Who was this strange surrealist and what did the film mean? They banned him from making any further films, as his surreal work wasn’t nice Czech propaganda that glorified the state. They saw his work as an embarrassment to the country.

Svankmajer’s next film project was Alice (1988), his first feature.  It was produced just as the Czech government was about to fall, using money provided by Channel 4 in the UK. Since the government was about to collapse and he wasn’t using the state’s money, they left him alone.

Reagan Downsizes Govt. Spending by Cutting Budgets that Support the Arts

The exciting period of rich experimentation by independent filmmakers during the 1960s and 1970s is mostly forgotten today. What most Americans would soon become familiar with is animation for features and TV.

The first major change occurred almost overnight with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Once Reagan’s appointees were in office, massive budget cuts were made to the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts, and to other federal agencies. Headlines like “Oct. 1 1981: That Day Is Finally Here – Reagan’s Budget Cuts Begin” from the Washington Post were everywhere. They slashed the budget for most forms of art. Funding for animation vanished and, unfortunately, that situation hasn’t improved. The once-thriving market for educational films quickly dried up. The lack of new films and budget cuts for public schools to buy teaching materials were factors that contributed to non-theatrical film distributors going out of business. Some of these distributors were also distributing experimental, inspirational, and entertaining animation, as well as educational films.

When I was about twelve, I discovered there was more to animation than the great Looney Tunes series that I loved. The first of several epiphanies was my discovering the films of Norman McLaren from Canada. I had no idea such wonderful films existed until my father took me to a large party, where they showed McLaren’s Neighbors (1952) and two of his abstract films that were hand-painted on film stock. A few years later, I got to see delightful quirky animation from Zagreb, and then Jiri Trinka’s The Hand (1965, Czechoslovakia), which contained sly political content. Then, in the early 1970s, I joined thousands of other people who discovered incredible films in the annual Tournée of Animation programs. The compilations introduced styles and concepts from around the world that helped some Americans realize there were amazing alternatives to Hollywood cartoons.

When universities began to offer courses in animation, students discovered that they could learn the techniques needed to make their own meaningful works. Also, a few colleges were beginning to hold film festivals that encouraged students to make works to submit to festivals. When I was working at the Toledo Museum of Art (1968–1971), I was able to attend several screenings at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which included experimental animation.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles established the Student Academy Awards in 1972. It gave film students an impressive competition to enter, and it included an animation category. This contest, as well as others, helped open doors that could advance the careers of young animators. It also gave film distributors a chance to find out about works they might want to represent.

Being in the Student Academy Awards gives the film world a chance to discover tomorrow’s hot talent. A few of the outstanding films they have honored are Lady and the Lamp (1979) and Nightmare (1980), both by John Lasseter. He is still the only student to win Student Oscars in Animation two years in a row! Henry Selick’s films Tube Tales (1975) and Phases (1979) were finalists, and Pete Docter’s Next Door (1990) won the Student Academy Award in Animation in 1990. Lasseter, Selick, and Docter were graduates of CalArts, a school that obviously had both a great faculty and top students.

The Rise and Decline of Programs of Animated Shorts

While getting a film shown at a festival is an important accomplishment, getting it into a touring film program is an even greater honor. The first program of independent animated shorts from Europe reached the U.S. in 1964, when Pierre Barbin, the director of the Festival D’Annecy (founded in 1960), was invited to visit the United States. Animation producer Les Goldman and UCLA Professor Bill Shull, with the help of the State Department, arranged for the visit. Annecy was at that time the only festival devoted to showing animation, but since not everyone could go there, why not get some of the films and show them in LA? Barbin brought with him a program of films from the 1963 festival.

The LA screenings were an important introduction to the animation community and an exciting, vibrant form of animation that was being created in other parts of the world. The rumors were true that while the U.S. was turning out mindless stuff made for kids’ TV, in Europe an exciting new form of animation was developing for adults.

The following year, animator John Wilson produced a similar screening at the Huntington Hartford Theater (later called the Doolittle Theater) in Hollywood. Former MGM animator Bill Littlejohn recalled, “It opened our eyes to the fact that these things are marketable, that there was an audience for this type of thing.”

The success of the screenings resulted in Bill Littlejohn and Les Goldman, both members of ASIFA-Hollywood (then called ASIFA-West), asking Henry Hopkins, a curator at the newly opened LA County Museum of Art, about working together to present their own event. Ward Kimball, two-time Oscar winner and one of Walt Disney’s “nine old men,” pitched in to help create the event that took place at the museum in 1967. That screening is considered the birth of The International Tournée of Animation, an important showcase in the U.S. for contemporary animated films from around the world. (Our knowledge of how this event came about was forgotten until I recently found a copy of The Tournee at 20, an unpublished manuscript that Prescott Wright had given me just before he died.)

Those were the first chances for a lot of people to actually see quality animation for adults that they had read about. These films were not being shown anywhere else in the U.S. In addition to Littlejohn, Goldman, and Kimball, ASIFA members June Foray, Bill Scott, and David Hilberman also helped make these screenings happen.

The second Tournée, in 1968, was an even greater success, thanks to Herb Kosower, who taught at the University of Southern California (USC). He organized and ran the second, third, and fourth shows.

As word of the screenings spread, out-of-town presentations were requested. The first was at San Francisco State. Hilberman, a former Disney animator and a founder of the UPA cartoon studio, was teaching there. As more requests were made, ASIFA-Hollywood realized they needed a dedicated manager to organize and run the Tournée as a business. They chose Prescott Wright, a former fellow at the American Film Institute (AFI), who had just started Filmwright, his own film distribution company in San Francisco.

Wright was hired in 1970 to organize and distribute the Tournée. One of his first screenings was at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Each year, the shows were gaining in popularity, but in 1973 the LA County Museum decided to drop financial support for the production of the show. Wright assumed that responsibility and one of his first changes was to commission a different animation student each year to create the show’s opening title sequence.

Wright, in 1974, wrote about the unique qualities of the films he was showcasing. He first explained that, while the U.S had created an exceptional theatrical cartoon industry, “in Europe the animated film took a little different route. It was not intended primarily to please young audiences or simply to get people seated for a feature film, but rather, the animated film was considered a medium of more serious expression intended primarily for adults. Few of these short films dealing with human foibles, politics, and humor in ironic and often wry ways were seen in the U.S. until the mid-1950s, and then as ‘educational’ films blending messages with very sophisticated artwork. They were little noticed until 1962, when a film from Zagreb, Yugoslavia called Ersatz (Surogat) won an Academy Award.” (Published in Magic Lantern, Vol. III, Number II, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 1974)

International Animation on American TV

In 1975, the Tournée was screened in 30 locations around the country, but the revenue it produced wasn’t sufficient. About that time, Gary Meyer, who had been a classmate and fellow teacher of Wright’s at SF State, was now co-owner of the Landmark theatre chain. Gary says he convinced Wright to let him premiere the show in LA at the Nuart Theater, and to let him show the annual programs in the chain’s other theaters. Wright resisted the idea, but he gave in. That resulted in the show playing to a much wider audience. The 16th program played in 120 locations.

Wright ended up directing the program for about 15 years. He attended festivals in the U.S. and Europe (Annecy, Zagreb, and others) to find works to show in The Tournée. In 1975, he was also a founding member and guiding light of the ASIFA chapter in San Francisco. In 1976, he was a founder of the Ottawa International Animation Festival, and he acted as their first International Director.

In 1977, an exceptional program of animated shorts was screened on public television, the International Festival of Animation. It was hosted by British actress Jean Marsh. It gave a much wider audience a chance to see an impressive selection of films, including Closed Mondays by Will Vinton and Bob Gardiner (1974), Hunger by Peter Foldes (1974), and other important works. Unfortunately, despite favorable press, there wasn’t a sequel.

In 1977, The Fantastic Animation Festival premiered with an excellent selection of films. They had an unusual-looking poster to promote the show, and the program was made available as a package for TV.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a second edition.

The Fantastic Animation Festival screenings did result in something totally unexpected. Two guys who had been hired to hand out flyers to promote the show figured out they could organize and promote their own festival. Mike Gribble and Craig “Spike” Decker were soon in business showing the Spike and Mike Festival of Animation; they became successful showing works from around the world for many years. Now there were two programs that were being shown around the country.

Making an Animation Show into a Fun Event

Spike and Mike’s shows were a lot of fun if you liked being at an enormous crazy party or a rock concert, where the host builds up the crowd’s anticipation for something special. While the films were the main act, before they screened, Spike got the audience boisterous and loud. Large balloons were tossed into the audience that could be batted about until they popped. Spike’s dog even got onstage to pop several. Finally, the lights would dim for the main event.

Mike would dress flamboyantly, with colorfully patterned suits, colored hair, and a beard trimmed in curious ways. At one point, one side of his face was clean-shaven, and the other side had a neatly trimmed beard.

Spike loved walking around town, handing out the colorful flyers for their show, accompanied by several battery-powered mechanical animals. They also commissioned artists they liked to do the show’s poster and program cover. They were delightful showmen and they were articulate. They loved having fun, and audiences joined in and loved it!

Spike and Mike ran their business like P.T. Barnum might have. They would “four-wall” (rent) the theatre for a fixed price so they could keep 100% of the gate. To avoid the complex accounting of paying royalties, they bought prints of films for a flat fee for the life of the print (according to several filmmakers). They relied on their skills as showmen to promote their event, which can be a risky way of doing business, but they were experts. They built up a loyal following everywhere they went, so when they came to San Francisco and other cities, they often sold out large halls for several nights. They hired students, hippies, and other cool dudes to hand out flyers on college campuses and at other places where their prospective audience might hang out.

They were also great at inviting special guests to appear onstage and to say a few words to the audience. When the guest animator was a young John Lasseter, I and perhaps 100 other people were invited to a fun party at the suite of rooms where Spike and Mike were staying. There was lots of pizza and stuff to drink (it wasn’t a high-society, catered affair). (If you want some inappropriate gossip - late that evening I saw two “kids” having fun sailing parts of the cardboard boxes that the pizza came in out the window to see how far they would go.  The naughty boys were Spike and the guest of honor!   I was later told the manager of the high-rise apartment building told them not to rent his suites again.)

On another occasion, Spike had to stay at the theater, so he asked my wife and me if we would take June Foray someplace for a really nice dinner. It was wonderful getting to know her. I have great memories of their coming to town.

Enter Expanded Entertainment

The availability of excellent animated shorts got even more interesting in 1985, when Expanded Entertainment was organized as a “sister” partner to Landmark Theaters. They distributed both live-action features and collections of outstanding animated shorts. (Footnote: Landmark Theaters Corporation was owned by Steve Gilula and Gary Myers, with former Landmark theater manager and marketing head Terry Thoren as president of Expanded. Meyer and Gilula were executive producers and quite involved in running the corporation. Ron Diamond was hired to oversee the content and distribution of the animated programs.)

In 1985, Expanded created the Animation Celebration, a 35mm program that featured an excellent selection of animation. This and subsequent editions were shown in Landmark Theaters and by other exhibitors. The shows received good reviews in the press.  

Prescott Wright, who was creating and distributing The Tournée of Animation, told me his business was shrinking due to the decline of venues showing 16mm films. He also wasn’t sure he could afford to blow up the Tournée to 35mm and successfully distribute it to commercial cinemas. Most non-theatrical animation was made and distributed on 16mm film at that time.

In 1986, Prescott decided to sell his business to Expanded Entertainment and accept a job offer to help Bill Dennis, a former Disney vice president, set up and run a new animation studio in the Philippines. Expanded/Landmark had the finances to create new programs and to blow up films shot in 16mm for distribution to commercial movie houses.

The Tournée continued as a 35mm program, with Ron Diamond programming the 20th to 24th editions. Ron’s shows were excellent and profitable, but after the 24th, it was decided to end the series.

In 1988, Expanded released a cutting-edge experimental show to colleges and movie theaters; it was programmed by Diamond with animators David Ehrlich and George Griffin. Streams of Consciousness: New American Animation, in 1988, featured work by Sally Cruikshank, Marcy Page, Joanna Priestly, and other fine artists that the pubic wasn’t aware of. The New York Times gave it a nice review titled “Taking an Animated Dip in Psychological Waters.”

Expanded also created something unexpected, novel and important in LA – a biannual animation festival. Now the U.S. could join the several successful animation festivals in Europe, and ones in Ottawa, Canada, and Hiroshima, Japan. The first LA Animation Celebration was held in 1985 and it had 200 films in the competition. In 1987, there were 400 in the competition.

Terry Thoren, the event’s producer, decided to turn the third edition into a really impressive event, the nation’s first major animation festival. The 1989 edition opened with the world premiere of Felix the Cat: The Movie, from Hungary. There were more than 850 films from 35 countries vying for over $95,000 in cash prizes (awards were given in 12 categories). They showed surreal classics by Jan Svankmajer, who was there in person. (When we were introduced, I remember his exact words: “I do not speak English.”) They had a tribute to the late David Hand, who had directed films at Disney before producing his own cartoons in England. They screened the latest computer-generated shorts (this was before Pixar’s Toy Story (1995), by John Lasseter), and lots of other exceptional work. There was even a program of music videos.

The festival included 39 events. It honored the great voice actor Mel Blanc. The former Disney animator Art Babbitt was there in person for a screening of the British documentary about him, Animating Art. (It was wonderful seeing Babbitt in person, even though he was very frail.) Other honored guests included Don Bluth (USA/Ireland), who screened lots of never-released footage; Yang Ding Xien, director of the Shanghai Animation Studio; Feodor Khitruk, president of the Union of Soviet Animators; and John Coates, president of TVC in London (they made Yellow Submarine in 1968). Coates won the festival’s Best Feature award for When the Wind Blows (1986). Another honored guest was Doug MacDonald, executive producer, English Language Animation, at the National Film Board of Canada.

Terry Thoren, the festival’s producer, told the press, “We believe that the animation industry in America needs a festival that focuses on its concerns. The foreign festivals like Annecy   have a flavor of really being for Europeans. Ours has developed more of a Western feel.”

At last, the U.S. had a serious animation festival, but unfortunately, this wonderful event was too expensive to produce. The next edition was downsized, and the subsequent edition was even smaller. It ended in the early 1990s.

Expanded continued to explore new directions in programming. It created the controversial program Outrageous Animation in 1988, billing it as “the wildest cartoons ever.” Critics gave it mixed reviews and said it didn’t really live up to its name. It did, however, delight the audience at the LA Animation Celebration in 1989 with films like Lupo the Butcher (1987, Canada) by Danny Antonucci. Lupo hacks his body apart while screaming expletives. Despite Lupo’s language, the show was tame enough to be shown on the Turner Classic Movies channel uncensored.

Spike and Mike also tried their hand at trying to shock and gross out the audience with their Sick and Twisted Animation in 1990. The quality of most of their films was questionable, but it was something new and exciting for some and disgusting for others. Sequels were produced, giving young animators a chance to create something crude that would actually be seen by thousands of people.

Broadcast TV would eventually expand its boundaries of what is acceptable on TV with The Simpsons (1989 –). Then cable pushed the boundaries further out. The first season of Ren and Stimpy by John Kricfalusi, in 1992, was totally outrageous and really gross. Unfortunately, it was too far out, so the network tamed the show in subsequent seasons.

The internet, with fewer censorship restrictions, has presented even grosser shows. One long-lived twisted series was Happy Tree Friends (2000-2016), by Aubrey Ankrum, Rhode Montijo, and Kenn Navarro.

While gross animation became an established trend, with Expanded also releasing Too Outrageous Animation in 1995, they also released the British Animation Invasion in 1993. It was a very respectable program of sophisticated shorts. Critics responded by calling it smart, witty, daring, and delightful. One said it “genuinely sustains your interest throughout.” It was packed with audience pleasers, including Next (1990), by Barry Purves, which features a realistic-looking stop-motion puppet of William Shakespeare pantomiming his 29 plays in just five minutes. Other exceptional works were Creature Comforts (1989), by Nick Park, of which the hard-to-please film critic Charles Solomon (LA Times) said, “This hilarious film gets funnier on each successive viewing.” The program also included Body Beautiful (1989) by Joann Quinn, in which a bullied female factory worker triumphs by putting her sexist male supervisor in his place.

Expanded and Spike and Mike increased the public’s awareness of independent animation by producing VHS tapes and laser discs of their shows to sell to the public. Spike and Mike’s company, Mellow Manner, produced a video of The World’s Funniest Animation in 1991, followed by annual releases of their Festival of Animation videos. In 1993, they also released the first of what would also become a series, Sick and Twisted tapes. Landmark released a videotape of Outrageous Animation in 1990, and it was followed by tapes of British Animation, and five different Animation Celebrations.

This great period of showing independent animated shorts came to an end in 1998, when the Landmark Theaters were sold to the Samuel Goldwyn Company, and Expanded Entertainment vanished. The free internet was expanding rapidly, and poorly animated Flash animation was becoming the hot new sensation. Its low resolution would have looked awful blown up on a big theater’s screen, but the public seemed to enjoy the often-crude animation that was available FOR FREE on their home computer screens.

As for the Spike and Mike productions, Mike died from cancer in 1994. He was just 42. Spike carried on by cutting back on the number of new shows produced. He also cut back on the number of screenings he did each year. He commissioned a few low-budget shorts and he continued to go to international animation festivals.

To share what a Spike and Mike show was like, Kat Alioshin, who once worked for the duo, produced and directed Animation Outlaws, a delightful documentary feature about Spike and Mike that captures the audience having fun. It also has highly regarded animators talking about the unique festival experience that once existed. The trailer and the entire documentary are online.

In 1999, Ron Diamond’s The Animation Show of Shows premiered, but for several years it was mainly shown at colleges that taught animation, major animation studios, museums, and other places where he hoped the works might inspire and influence animators. Ron also runs Acme Filmworks in LA, which creates TV commercials for national brands, animated sequences for features, and other projects.

It was Ron’s love of quality animation that led him to create his traveling show. He has expanded his presentations of it into commercial movie theaters, but, unfortunately, when COVID-19 arrived, he lost his audience. He is currently reviving the show.

Ron’s shows always feature some of the year's best animated works. They include significant, highly original, artistic, narrative, and experimental shorts. They range from funny to serious, intelligent concepts. He is presently putting together the 25th edition, which will feature some of the most outstanding shorts from past shows.

Since 2007, a number of the films that have been in The Animation Show of Shows have also been released on DVDs at very reasonable prices. Amazon carries sets of them.

Ron also founded the internet’s largest and most important animation news and information website, Animation World Network ( It covers both the worlds of fine art and commercial animation. There are lots of feature articles, blogs, job and school listings, and other things.

Terry Thoren, while he was working with Expanded Entertainment, founded Animation Magazine, a slick trade publication with lots of ads. It primarily focuses on news of domestic commercial features and television shows. You can also find animation news online at Animation Magazine, Animation Scoop, and Cartoon Brew.

The present century has also had a short-lived attempt to bring quality animated shorts to the public that was run by well-known animators. The first edition of The Animation Show was released in 2003 by Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-Head) and Don Hertzfeldt. They organized the program to show their work the way it was meant to be seen, on theater screens. The first package included other films they respected, including wacky shorts by Bill Plympton. The program was seen in over 200 theaters and was released on DVD.

The Animation Show achieved its goal of getting good works seen properly, so additional editions were released in 2005, 2007, and 2008. They featured fine work by Georges Schwizgebel from Switzerland, Joanna Quinn from the UK, PES and Bill Plympton from the U.S., and others. It was a noble experiment in which artists put together their ideal shows for the love of the medium. They didn’t try to add “ringers” that might have attracted more people but were not films they respected.

Today, the only way most people can see independently produced animated shorts is on the internet, where it helps to know the works or directors you want to see, or to see the five Oscar-nominated animated shorts each year if they are being shown in a local theatre in the brief period that starts just after the nominations are announced and ends a few days before the awards ceremony. Five shorts aren’t a good representation of the thousands of animated films made each year, but box office reports indicate the show is quite popular. It has grosses over $3 million in recent years. The show was originally organized by Carol Crow’s Apollo Cinema, but another firm now distributes it. In 2023, only one of the five nominated films was by an animator from the U.S.

I hope this give you a good idea of why, for many people, it isn’t easy to see animated shorts in our country. A Hollywood feature can open on 4,000 screens at once, but the shows just discussed were only shown in a limited number of venues. Seeing shorts online is a hit-and-miss situation unless you know what to look for. Today, only a tiny percentage of people know that truly remarkable animated shorts even exist. One reason for that is Hollywood animated features and commercial TV series dominate the media. Wonderful, independently produced shorts desperately need a home.

TV Never Developed as a Showcase for Independently Produced Animated Shorts

Until the decline of Hollywood cartoons and animated educational shorts being shown in the classroom, kids were used to seeing animation outside of the home. As a kid growing up in the 1950s, I knew what to expect before the feature and I looked forward to seeing a two- or three-hour-long cartoon marathon on a Saturday afternoon once or twice a year.

In the early 1950s, there wasn’t much animation on TV, except silent cartoons with soundtracks added, and old public domain cartoons from studios that had gone out of business. I did watch Jay Ward and Alex Anderson’s Crusader Rabbit (1950-51), the first animation cartoon series made for TV that was widely seen. It was a silly novelty.

Animation on TV got more interesting in 1955. Paul Terry sold his company, Terrytoons, to CBS (Mighty Mouse). Warner Bros. also sold a package of black-and-white cartoons to TV in 1955. It included early Daffy Duck and Porky Pig cartoons. In 1957, Walter Lantz premiered the Woody Woodpecker Show, and in 1960, The Bugs Bunny Show premiered.

Animation made for TV doesn’t really succeed as a business until Hanna-Barbara enters the TV marketplace with The Ruff and Reddy Show in 1957. Jay Ward returned with Rocky and His Friends in 1959. Ward tried to inject adult humor that would go over the heads of kids, but advertisers stuck with wholesome Hanna-Barbara-type shows that were free of adult content.

The belief that animation was for kids didn’t begin to change until the arrival of The Simpsons. The better animated evening shows for adults do have budget restraints, which means most use lots of talking heads to keep the productions within their budgets.  There is more creativity in animated TV shows today, but. TV hasn’t shown much interest in being a home for work by independent animators whose work strays very far from what audiences are used to seeing.

So, Where’s the Outlet Today for Independently Produced Shorts?

I hope I’ve clearly shown that it has only been a somewhat successful struggle to discover and educate the public in the U.S. to the value of well-made, intelligent, animated shorts created by independent artists for open-minded adults. Several shows in the past tried, and they did make a positive impression about the value of independent animation as a fine art, but only Ron Diamond’s Animation Show of Shows and the traveling shows of Oscar-Nominated Shorts exist today in theaters. Skybound Entertainment recently purchased Spike and Mikes’ library.  They say they will distribute three kinds of shorts: the well-made Spike & Mike’s Festival of Animation, Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted, and what they are calling Spike & Mike’s Arty Farty.

Seeing the shorts that are in the annual theatrical release of the Oscar-nominated shorts is a treat, but they may not be the finest animated films made that year. Public television (PBS) shows an occasional animated short that is noteworthy. Another place to see independently produced animation is at film festivals. There are hundreds of festivals in the U.S. each year, but most charge filmmakers entry fees to submit. Most animators have limited budgets, so unless your local festival is known for showing outstanding work in competition, chances are the year’s best are not going to be in your local festival. (Sundance, South by Southwest, and the New York Film Festival are among the better-known festivals showing highly regarded animation). It is also nice that Pixar and Disney put well-made animated shorts by their up-and-coming directors in front of their features.

I suspect that there are a lot of good shorts that never get the exposure they deserve in the U.S. Unfortunately, our nation’s best-known independent animators, including Bill Plympton, Signe Baumane, Joanna Priestly, and Nina Paley, don’t have big budgets to promote their work.

Signe has a new feature, My Love Affair with Marriage, that is winning awards at film festivals in Europe, and it is being shown theatrically in several European nations.

Signe says that securing a theatrical release in North America was a difficult challenge. She says that securing a theatrical release in North America was a difficult challenge. It took her over a year to get a contract. The film premiered in New York and Los Angeles last fall and was seen briefly in a few other cities. She believes that, due to the growth of streaming and the pandemic, the habits of moviegoers have been changing and that the changes have resulted in more movie theaters closing. Before she got her distribution contract, she wrote her financial backers that “the art-film distribution structure in the U.S. is in the process of collapsing. The offers we have received so far from U.S. distributors have only been for online options.”


I wish to acknowledge several people who have spent many years promoting animation as a fine art including Ron Diamond, Garry Meyer, Spike and Mike, Prescott Wright, Jerry Beck, Amid Amidi, Nancy Denney-Phelps, Harvey Deneroff, John and Faith Hubley, John Canemaker, Louise Beaudet, Curator of the Animation Section of the Cinémathèque Québecoise; David Ehrlich from Dartmouth College (he arranged for classic Chinese animation to be seen in the US in the 1980s), Charles Samu (he brought Eastern Block/Soviet animation to the US during the Cold War), George Manupelli (who founded the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1963), curator Adrianne Mancia at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; Edith Kramer at the Pacific Film Archives (UC Berkeley), and Ron Haver at the Los Angeles County Museum.

I wish to thank the dozens of people mentioned who contributed their thoughts and memories to this study, including Jim Middleton, Deanna Morse, Ed Hooks, Vince Collins, Jerry van de Beek, Betsy de Fries, Mark Kausler, Sally Cruikshank, Signe Baumane, and Joanna Priestly. Also, to Ron Diamond and Gary Meyer, who sent me their insights that form the third article,

There are also several people who have contributed to keeping ASIFA-SF going over the years including Marty McNamira, Eihway Su, Paul Nass, Scott Kravitz, Martha Gorzcki, Ben Ridgway, Karen Folger Jacobs, Gail Silva, John Hays, Laura Tullos, Marcy Page, Pam Stalker, Liz Keim, Shirley Smith, Emily Beck, Ralph Guggenheim, Steve Segal, Steve Ng, Dan McHale, David Chai, Nik Phelps, The G Man and… Thanks to all of you! And a very, very special thanks to Denise McEvoy, my wife for 1001 things.

For further reading, you might enjoy my article, The Unnatural History of Independent Animated Films on 16mm. My library of AWN articles can be found here. You can contact me with things to add, delete, or argue over at


Karl Cohen is a noted historian, author, educator, and President of ASIFA-San Francisco. He has contributed articles to for decades; some were reprinted by The Guardian in the UK and other publications and websites. His most widely read article is on the CIA using animation as propaganda during the Cold War, first published on AWN. He taught animation history at SF State for 29 years and has lectured at other institutions and festivals in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and China.  He wrote “Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators” and hundreds of articles. He’s presently working on a book tentatively called “Amazing Animation” as he believes animation at times is a truly remarkable and great form of art.

Karl Cohen's picture
Karl Cohen is president of ASIFA-SF and taught animation history at SF State University. He is the author of "Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators," as well as hundreds of articles about animation, many published by AWN.