Disposable Animation: More Prevalent Than Ever?
Art is always held in high cultural esteem, yet only the best and most widely acclaimed retain any kind of longevity. The rest is quite literally disposable as any dumpster behind a library will happily attest to. Animation is no different than any other art, and just like them, the internet has brought about an even greater degree of disposable animation and produced a real struggle to create cartoons with any sense of quality, and timelessness.
Watch any Van Beuren cartoon and the title of this post will never ring more true. Cheap, repetitive animation has been around since the very beginning and over the years its popularity has waxed and waned as the economic cycles that plague entertainment in general hold sway over the industry. If it wasn’t Van Beuren in shorts, it was Hanna-Barbera in TV, or many of the countless outfits that have popped up on YouTube and other places in the last few years.
So it’s always existed, and likely always will. The credo behind it will remain as well; cheap cartoons make for a quick buck, and the public will lap them up regardless. Shorts, features, TV shows, and web animation are all afflicted, both in the past and the present day. Little attention is paid to the art or the craft because, well, they’re irrelevant aren’t they? Profit needs to be made now not later, and nobody has the patience to wait any length of time for a picture to recoup its costs.
One studio boss became famous for eschewing such an approach and instead put as much effort as was possible into his shorts. Walt Disney was no fool, and he knew the value in making something with timeless appeal. His company survives today, but more importantly even if it did not, his shorts and features would still be well known and well liked because they can hardly be seen as ‘disposable’.
Hanna-Barbera and others faced severe financial pressures to control costs in the early days of the televised medium, yet they were still able to innovate and conceive hits like The Flintsones. It was only when the effort to create innovative art was stifled by regulation that their output rapidly declined into the malaise of the 1970s and 1980s. Formulaic, repetitive shows ruled, and although they retain a degree of cult status, they are not exactly considered true classics.
TV by its very nature emphasises the new over the old, but even its business model is keenly aware of the value in great animation: the Warner Bros. and MGM theatrical shorts found a new lease of life on the small screen because they were cheap to broadcast, but they were also good enough to attract and retain audiences for decades.
Which leads us to the web; a place even more vapid and flippant than television. The sheer explosion of content may be constrained by similar forces to the early days of TV animation, but, that has also resulted in an even more disposable culture surrounding animated web series’ and shorts.
The reasons are the same as early theatrical shorts: there’s not enough money to devote expensive resources, audiences don’t care for added quality, and they can’t be released fast enough.
The end result is that we have an awful lot of animated content, but very little that could be said to be ‘good quality’ or anything even close to it. ‘Serviceable’ is probably a good a description as any, but such animated content is instantly forgettable; it is consumed and discarded. It is art, but it merely exists within the cultural environment; taking nothing, contributing nothing.
Having read Bob Thomas’ biography of Walt this past week while on holiday, what struck me was Walt’s resolute dedication to achieving the best quality permissible. He knew he was innovating in numerous areas, and he also understood that in order to gain acceptance of his developments, he had to make them as polished as possible.
Looking around the internet today, it’s really hard to see any sort of similar dedication to the art. While animation in general is growing in popularity, it is doing so at the expense of timelessness. Almost every webseries currently being distributed will have very little commercial value in even five years time.
Given the similarities between today’s web landscape and that of the early part of Hollywood’s Golden Age, where is our modern-day Walt Disney? Where is the animator striving to push the art in new directions with new technology? Where is the person who is looking at the formulaic, lowbrow, anaemic style of storytelling of the web and saying “the audience deserves better!”? Where is the ambitious artist who recognises that the animated entertainment that rises above the crowd will do so forever?
In a sea of disposable, forgettable animation, we cry out for the the fearless individual that is not content simply making animation for the sake of making animation, but produces great animation for the sake of making great, timeless art.