Spendthrift DVDs

DVDs are perhaps the best thing to ever happen to home video since the invention of, home video! Fancy that. Besides offering a resolution far beyond that of VHS (side note, what does CHS stand for? Hint: It’s not “Video Home System” The answer is at the bottom, no cheating!)

Besides that, DVD meant that extras could be included, such  as director commentaries and the now-ubiquitous “making of” documentary. All of these have had the effect of increasing the viewing experience. Animation-wise, this has meant the inclusion of animatics, pencil tests, character sketches and even side-by-side comparisons!

All of these things are taken for granted now, which makes it all the more ridiculous to hear that studios are removing extras from DVDs to encourage people to buy the Blu Ray discs instead. Now granted, we’ve already heard of this kind of thing happening to rental discs, but for regular DVDs? They’re having a laugh.

I can’t recall any good examples at the moment, but it’s slightly encouraging to see studios package DVD/Blu Ray combo packs, which should ease the pain of upgrading. The simple solution is to buy a Blu Ray player and hook it up to a regular TV, of course some players don’t allow that.

DVD is not going away anytime soon, certainly not as quickly as VHS disappeared. For plenty of people, the difference simply isn’t worth going out and spending a couple of grand on a new TV and player, complete with surround sound system.

Removing features will do nothing to increase the uptake of Blu Ray. And when you think about it, Blu Ray may be eclipsed by streaming anyway, where extras can be watched at will.

OK, a bit of a sloppy post I know, but it’s Friday and I’m about to run out the door. Did you guess the answer? It’s

Creator’s Block

We’re all familiar with writer’s block, that agonizing thing when it feels like you can write nothing. But what about creator’s block? I certainly got it today with this blog! This is the third attempt at a post and yet I am somehow getting it together piece by piece.

One thing I’ve learned from the readings and teachings of Mr. David Levy, is that opportunity is always knocking, even when you think it isn’t. Case in point, today’s post. I thought about recommending a book, commenting on cel-shaded animation, even about posting about the Fleischer Brothers move to Florida! Could I get past the first paragraph on any of them? Not a chance 🙁

Yet here I am, posting about a subject that should have stopped me from writing about it in the first place!

What is it about creative block? Why is it that we feel we are simply unable to write or draw or paint or whatever it is we do? It’s a mystery to me, although I would like to blame the fact that is is still very early in the week and the joys of the weekend are still a long ways off.

Nevertheless, animators continue to amaze me in their prolific output. Of the many blogs I follow, there are naturally the few that update maybe only a few times a year, but others have new stuff up every week! Does this mean that the latter are better than the former? Nonsense, some of the slackers simply don’t have the time (or at least that’s the excuse the present whenever they post).

If you’re an animator working on a personal project, creator’s block can be your worst nightmare. Luckily, you can find inspiration from anywhere! Either on TV, radio, outside, your favourite movie, you name it. That’s what’s so nice about being in a creative industry, you can take inspiration from anywhere. Unlike myself, who is normally limited to the AASHTO Green Book, where the numbers are a bit more preceise.

My point is, creator’s block affects all of us at some point. We all hate it, but before you know it, an idea will pop into your head and away you go like it never even happened.

Hey look at that, I wrote an entire post after all those false starts 🙂

Mickey Mouse’s Copyright Law

How old is Mickey Mouse? Well, he’s about 82 years if he’s a day. So why is he still under copyright while other early cartoon stars are not? Well, for one, plenty of companies from that era went out of business long ago and their associated copyrights are either forgotten about or expired.

Yet Mickey’s has not. He is still fully owned, and will continue to be owned, by the Walt Disney Company for the foreseeable future at least. Consistent enforcement of copyright is part of it. Disney is still very much in business, and is certainly enforcing its legal rights regarding infringement.

So why exactly does Mickey Mouse have his own copyright law? Well for one, it isn’t really his, its Sonny Bono’s (the guy with the bomb in Airplane, also he was a singer of some sort in the 60s). The act itself extended copyright terms in the US for 20 more years, on top of the life plus 50 years already offered. Corporate authorship is now 120 years, increased from 75 years.

The reason it’s called the Mickey Mouse law is the presumption, and possibility, that it was the looming date on which Mickey Mouse would enter the public domain, that coerced the Disney company to begin lobbying for such an extension.

What advantage does this serve? Well for one, it means Disney can continue to extract license fees for the old films for a start. It also prevents anyone else from making similar or derivative works based on the films.

Is this a good thing? Well for the copyright holder? Yes, they can continue to make money. Personally, I think this is a bad thing. OK, so you continue to own the character, but if he is freely available, then even more people can enjoy him, It may even push up demand for the films that are almost as old but still covered by copyright.

If you think about it, if the public domain was such a bad thing, publishers wouldn’t be publishing all those Jane Austin or Charles Dickens novels. Sure you can read them online for free, and yet people still buy the books, and publishers still make a profit from them, even though they aren’t covered by any copyright! Amazing isn’t it?

Do you think Disney would lose a ton of money just because a few films from the 20s and 30s enter the public domain? Unlikely. When was the last time you seen one of those films? For me it’s been a number of years.

So there you go. Mickey Mouse has his own law, and the company behind it is all the worse for it.

Toys As A Creative Source For Cartoons

I was rather gutted when I found out they were toys first...

To be frank, I don’t remember an awful lot of these. being a child of the mid-80s, I missed more than half the decade, also having been raised in Ireland, I was dependent on whatever RTE could afford or care enough about to import.

What made cartoons of that decade stand out more than anything else? Toys of course! Yes indeedy, this was the decade where cartoons reigned supreme as the marketing vehicle to children, even moreso than today or the 1990s for that matter.

You couldn’t turn on a TV without seeing a show based on a toy. be it The Care Bears, Transformers, G.I. Joe and so on. The strategy was successful, but of course, the shows themselves dated quickly. Although some managed to achieve a certain level of cult status.

Thankfully, somebody wised up in the 90s and realized that cartoons worked much better if they were the source of the toys, not a cog in the marketing machine. Today we have smart, funny and intensely entertaining cartoons to watch 24/7 and the toys that go with them are top notch too. How much nicer is it to see Spongebob getting into trouble in Bikini Bottom than, say, the Transformers off to stop the evil Deseptacons, again!

The reason for this post is the word filtering through the internet that the two guys behind Ruby-Spears have announced that they intend to start marketing old Jack Kirby ideas as a combined TV show and toy line.

Great! If that’s what they want to do, then more power to them. There can never be enough cartoons in this world. There will always be good and bad shows, sometimes (like the 80s) there will be more bad ones than good ones. Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that some form of animation on TV or otherwise is better than nothing. Now if I was in charge, you can bet you’d only see the best, creator-driven cartoons ever made. But unfortunately I’m not in charge, so we’ll have to deal with what comes out between now and then.

Nope, what I’m wondering is where they’ll find a willing buyer. Disney is only interested in its own properties (or those developed in-house). Nickelodeon, while sometimes going outside Viacom, has so far chosen to develop their own shows and market them accordingly. With the stunning success of Spongebob Squarepants, I can’t see them changing their tune either. As for the Cartoon Network, they’ve decided to change their direction away from cartoons. Although they have bought in shows, such as Cookie Jar’s Johnny Test, the network has an abysmal record of translating their shows into marketable products. Ben 10 is the exception rather than the rule, and even then the show has a very, very narrow focus on boys aged 6-11.

That leaves the broadcast networks. Which as we all know, are a bit of a graveyard for kids shows these days. ABC airs constant (and I mean constant, i.e. the same 20 episodes) re-runs of Disney shows. NBC has handed their Saturday mornings to Quobo, the quasi-cable channel. That leaves the CW and CBS. The former entrusts 4Kids, the latter used to use DIC before they got swallowed up by Cookie Jar.

Of all of these, the most likely prospective buyers are 4Kids and Cookie Jar, although 4Kids has focused more on anime imports, such as Sonic X and TNMT in recent times. DIC of course, has brought us many toy-related shows over the years. So perhaps they may be the buyers for and toy-related show that comes out of this. Such a shame the ratings are in the sub-1.0 level.

There is plenty to be hopeful about, but the last 20 years have proven that cartoons that are creator-driven stand to make much more money for toy makers than themselves. They would be wise to realize this.

Celebrity Voice Acting Part Deaux

This morning I was watching CBS Sunday morning. It’s a show I particularly like because, quite frankly, there aren’t many shows like it being broadcast, at least not in the US anyway. Long story short, they had a quick segment on voice-acting, focusing initially on Dora the Explorer followed by the world of commercials, etc.

During the course of the report, I learned even more about celebrity voice-acting than I knew when I previously wrote about it, surprisingly enough, in April 2009. As it turns out, celebrities do all sorts of voice-acting nowadays, not just for animation shows or films.

Just some examples from this morning include:

  • Morgan Freeman: CBS Nightly News
  • Michael Douglas (!): NBC Nightly News
  • Gene Hackman: Lowe’s Home Improvement

With the likes of Wanda Sykes, George Clooney, Tom Selleck (!!) and so forth doing various TV spots. What I find fascinating is that at least for a TV show or film, the producers can at least broadcast or notify the public as to who is in the production in question. For advertisements, there’s nothing of the sort!

If I hadn’t been told this morning, I would have no idea that it was such well known celebrities doing such voice-overs. Why on earth would you, as a company allow your advertising agency to engage in such behaviour?

For one, celebrities are expensive (hey, I’m sure George Clooney, as damn fine a voice as he has, doesn’t rent it for nothing), and unless it is clearly obvious that the person in question is in the advertisement, your basically wasting money.

As I mentioned in the previous post, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of professional voice-actors out there that are more than capable of conveying the fact that Boniva isn’t for people with a heart condition or whatever.

Recently I’ve been reading the excellent book, Ogilvy on Advertising. Witten by David Ogilvy, a Scotsman who went from being a farmer in the Pennsylvania Amish country to the head of one of the most successful advertising agencies on Madison Avenue, it offers many lessons he has learned on the basics of advertising.

One thing he points out numerous times is that celebrities don’t improve your sales. Imagine that! People normally believe (and most of the time they are right) that when a celebrity appears in an ad, they are getting paid to do so, not just because head & Shoulders really does leave them dandruff free.

Ogilvy points out data that he believes proves that normal, unknown actors are more effective at selling stuff than celebrities. More so when it comes to voice-acting, which is a profession with a lot of skill. Any eejit can stand in front of a microphone, but to put emotion into a voice takes work and sadly, I think celebrities aren’t the best people to do that, real voice-actors are.

Renewing TV Shows

From about.com

It is the dream of every show creator to be renewed for another season. It is in many ways the ultimate compliment; “your show is so great and you are so talented, that we would like to give you a huge pile of money to make some more!”

Sounds great doesn’t it? And with the animation industry as transient as it is, getting an order of more episodes is a fantastic form of job security. You know when you are likely to run out of work, unlike say, myself, who could get the can any time, whether the job I’m working on is finished or not.

While renewing shows is generally a good thing (and there are plenty of examples where shows have been inexplicably renewed), sometimes it amazes me how quickly TV people jump the gun when it comes to shows.

The Cleveland Show is a prime example, where it was renewed before the pilot was even broadcast. That took a lot of guts in FOX’s part and yet it was certainly viewed as arrogance by some people, who thought that they should have waited to see concrete numbers before committing to a second season.

Too many shows have been screwed around by the networks and have ended up being cancelled because of supposed low viewing numbers. Two of said shows have been FOX productions so perhaps that’s something they should really work on.

Kids networks like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon are slightly different in that they don’t broadcast new content at the same amount as other networks (perhaps another reason I don’t cough up for cable) so they seem to be able to re-run shows ad-nausuem without wearing out their audience.

With the advent of online streaming and video on demand, we should see a switch to more precise viewing numbers. I hope that shows can get out there sooner, in other words before the entire season has finished production. As Adventure Time has proven, a show can have plenty of fans before it even gets off the ground. Every show should be like that, not just the really good ones.

Lead Female Protagonists in Mainstream US Animation


Animated TV programmes with female lead characters. Are they a rare occurrence? Certainly when compared to the numbers with male lead characters. Now, I’m not saying that females are underrepresented in animation, there are plenty of female characters, however, more often than not, they are not the main protagonist or are part of a group. How come this is so?

There is a general notion that girls like cartoons at a young age but lose that interest once they get older. That’s not to say that there are no programmes out there that specifically cater to girls (Horseland springs to mind). but it would seem that girls (more so than boys) try to imitate their older peers at an earlier age. One fact that is known about animated shows is that they are seen as ‘childish’ or beyond the intellectual capabilities of a certain age bracket. Thus girls are seemingly pressured to drop animation from their TV viewing at a younger age than boys.

Take Japan for example (an obvious choice, but a good one to study), animation is accepted in society as a suitable medium for programming to both males and females. There are a vast array of shows that are designed to appeal to girls and women in general because they don’t see animation as something that should be confined to younger age groups. They are also interested in many of the same genres as males, albeit with more female-centric plots. This implies that age is not the only type of peer pressure at work in discouraging girls and females from watching animation.

The types of shows that interest boys tend to be of adventure, fantasy and science-fiction, as well as comedy. Girls tend to show less interest in these genres, preferring instead to concentrate on character-driven shows (Chowder is perhaps a good, current example). The interests of boys (and males in general) are better served by animation as it is a cost effective method for delivering the product. Girls interests can often be catered for with live-action (Hanna Montana, etc.) which is cost effective, whereas the same show would be prohibitively expensive if animated with no real additional benefits to be gained (side note: Lizzy Maguire used live-action with animated sequences acting as a plot device). There have been some animated shows that could have been live action, such as Pepper Ann and As Told By Ginger, but I guess these are the exception to the rule.

The interesting thing is that it is possible to have cartoons with strong animated leads that can appeals to girls and be so successful that it attracts boys too. Examples include Kim Possible and the PowerPuff Girls; both shows with strong female leads yet are equally enjoyed by both sexes. They have a great mix of action (for the boys) and also have a decent dose of character development to satisfy the girls. However, they are not always successful. Take My Life as a Teenage Robot. This show about a teenage robot girl who routinely saves the earth is rather underrated but failed to attract much of either a girl or boy audience, despite having a female lead and the requisite types of plots for both audiences. It would appear that the line between a successful show and an unsuccessful show is a fine one.

Overall, I believe that the reason we see relatively few shows with female leads is a wider cultural belief that extends back to when television became widespread. In Japan, shows were designed to appeal to everyone, and the populous became comfortable with animation as a medium. In the US, animation was pushed more and more into the children’s corner, and although animation was still produced for slightly older audiences (it took thirty years for The Simpsons to arrive as save the rest of us), we have to remember that the world was a different place and that the opinion of females was a very different as well. Today we have many talented women within the animation industry, but I want to say they are trapped by a culture that neither allows nor encourages girls to seek role models or even entertainment in animation because of certain outdated expectations. Changing these expectations is very much an uphill task if we are to see more female-orientated programming on TV.