Why Is Animation Taking a Back Seat in Animated Programs?

When we talk about animated content (films, Tv shows, etc.) unless we’re being specific, we’re not just talking about the actual animation but the entire entertainment package. Today though, we are being specific, because, as great as the current crop of animated TV shows are, the actual ‘animation’ part leaves a bit to be desired.

This isn’t meant to be a gripe post, but consider a few examples:

simpsons alien joke


These are from two, high-profile American shows of recent vintage. Notice the actual animation, there isn’t much to say is there? Now yes, I will accept that the bottom one is a GIF made for the sake of it and not necessarily representative of the rest of Gravity Falls, but it’s still par with other shows.

However! The rise in popularity in animation has meant that we’ve seen a rise in focus on the content and characters as opposed to the actual animation. This isn’t to say that’s a bad thing, but it does become a concern when people proclaim a show to be a great animated show even though the animation itself is, for want of a better word, boring!

Even the recently lauded shows like Steven Universe and Uncle Grandpa seem to have fairly stiff and lifeless animation outside of key action sequences. That’s dismaying in a way because as kids shows, their audience relies more on visual cues than scripted ones. It’s dismaying in another way because that’s what anime shows tend to do, and even then they instil plenty of quirky animation into their ‘boring’ scenes.

To test this theory, watch two pieces of animation with the sound muted: an old Looney Tunes short and a modern animated show. Can you still tell what’s going on and follow the story closely? My hunch says that the former will be easy, but the latter will be difficult if not impossible.

Bugs_stag reel

That’s because the older shorts put a lot of effort into the actual animation and made sure they got their money’s worth. Yes, they were spending more money but supposedly every cel is being hand-drawn or made with CGI today.

While we’re not at the dark depths of limited animation that Hanna-Barbera pioneered to keep their careers afloat, we’re not too far from it either. You won’t see legs cut off to cut costs, but instead characters will stand still with all but their lips moving.

Animation is about making us believe in the life behind static drawings. It’s tough, but far from difficult thanks to decades of refinement. I just wonder how so much action can be simply left out even though there ought to be ample budget for proper animation.

Is it an educational problem? Is it technology? Is it merely taste? The Simpsons opening got a remake a few years ago and the wonderful loose cartoonyness of the original was lost to a stilted and sterile replacement. The reasons are obscure, but rumour has it that the original was considered too childish because of it’s Klasky-Csupo animation.

The main thing that makes all of this a concern is that there is no reason for it at all! Even extremely cheap and simple animation can have lots of wonderful animation:

Via: Brianne Drouhard a.k.a. Potatofarmgirl
Via: Brianne Drouhard a.k.a. Potatofarmgirl

What do you think? Has contemporary mainstream animation become somewhat stilted and boring?

43 thoughts on “Why Is Animation Taking a Back Seat in Animated Programs?”

  1. I’m a little surprised you didn’t pick something a bit more extreme for an example, say a Squidbillies or Aqua Team Hunger Force clip. The deal with most TV animation these days is that productions are more script driven than visually designed. Great examples of shows that have tried to maintain the artists’ influence (and by this I mean Storyboard Artists) are SpongeBob and Phinas and Ferb, which begin with a premise and leave the heavy lifting to the guys who draw when making the funny stuff. Sometimes it’s about budget, sometimes it’s about personal taste. While South Park in general looks fairly crude in it’s animation if you look carefully they’ve really developed their own pretty impressive visual vocabulary of animation.

    1. That’s true, and I wanted to draw a distinction between shows like South Park where budget, etc. dictate that the animation has to work within limits and shows like those of FOX where the animation doesn’t have the same restrictions.

  2. If you are going to compare modern TV limited animation to something from the past, then compare it to vintage TV limited animation rather than cinematic shorts using full animation. You can still make it come up short, but at least it’s a fair fight.

    1. I wasn’t necessarily comparing one to the other. Obviously the classic shorts are going to be superior in lots of ways, and overall quality is one of them.

      What I was getting at is that modern animated shows (outside of the likes of Adult Swim and South Park) have the opportunity to create fuller animation but choose not to.

  3. My comment is not meant to excuse this practice, but what you’re noticing has to do with budget and production schedule, and it’s a phenomenon that’s been the norm for TV animation since the 1960s. Your examples above would be considered “limited animation” (which just means that not the whole body is redrawn with each frame, but that chunks of the body and sequences of animation are recycled across the series).

    Much of the actual animation of TV animation is outsourced (the Simpsons has been outsourced to a South Korean studio for decades, maybe since its first season), and so the animation sequences can’t be as complex as classic cartoons that used full animation. Production houses and studios outsource because animation is incredibly expensive. Just think of the labor hours it takes to produce a series that you craft frame by frame.

    1. It isn’t so much that the shows are outsourced. The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra are made in Korea also and contain wonderful animation throughout. Why can’t other shows be made to a similar standard?

      1. The budget and the turnaround for most shows is just way too tight, and the writing has more audience pull. If you make a beautifully animated show with bad writing, you will still never get the audience you would with a beautifully written show with bad animation. I’d say it would be more fair to compare looney tunes classics to the shorts made for Pixar movies, and make the comparison of most modern shows to the Flintstones or Yogi Bear because that’s the kind of budget and timeline most people are working with nowadays.

      2. The mention of them being outsourced doesn’t have to do with quality of non-US animation studios, but practicalities. When you’re sending stuff out to another studio, you’re not going to have them doing the kinds of complex animations that you’d do yourself in house. And you’re right, there are some great Korean animations. Interestingly, some Korean studios use the profits they make from OEM work to fund their own original projects.

        Again, the issues for TV animation in the US are really budget and production schedule.

  4. You should have mentioned that most of those shows are outsourced to places like Korea.

    They don’t even do layouts anymore, with overseas places having to rely on storyboards to animate scenes.

  5. Matt Groening, Seth MacFarlane, Mike Judge and the other prime time creators dislike the kind of animation you’re in favor of and insist on the stilted stuff. Not only do they say as much in their many interviews, but staffers from those shows would be the first to tell you.

    1. I wouldn’t say it’s more that they don’t like it, but rather they can’t. Probably an even better idea is that maybe the style, mode, and direction of each doesn’t really call for it. Not every piece of animation needs to be Disney to sell.

    2. I recall reading around the time the new HD Simpsons opening came out a few years ago, a comment from one of the board artists saying that his attempts to faithfully recreate the original were pooh-poohed by the producers.

      There’s not denying that both sequences are from the Simpsons, but the original had so much more life and vitality in it without appearing overly cartoonish:


  6. Something thats not always brought up in these discussions is the intensions of the producers/directors of the show. Particularly when your dealing with a tight budget and restrictive deadlines.
    “The Simpsons” is a sitcom (arguably so is Gravity Falls) It doesn’t need lavish animation for a lot of the humor. So theres a greater emphasis put on consistency and solidity. The movement might not be lavish but check the staging, the BGs and design work. “Legend of Korra” is an action show and needs fuller animation, the result is a loss of consistency, many scenes on 3s or 4s and lots of static scenes between the action set pieces.
    Each show has to pick there battles. Remember a 22 minute episode will have 250-300+ scenes. and only a few months of actual animation time (with many episodes in production at once) I think given the circumstances things have improved radically over the last 20 years. Look at shows like “Motorcity” “SuperJail” and “Wonder over Yonder”

  7. Gravity Falls is literally the worst example you could have possibly picked. Watch that scene in the third act of the pilot episode where Dipper and Mabel are fighting off Gnomes as they careen throught the forest in a golf cart. It ain’t Rod Scribner, but the key drawings and timing are amazing.

    1. Yeah, Gravity Falls wasn’t an ideal choice as far as the animation itself goes because it is fairly good, however, as M.V. points out, Gravity Falls is almost an animated sitcom. Not that that’s a bad thing, but do fans like it because of the animation or do the characters/plots/jokes play a more important role?

      1. Obviously The latter, just as it has always been with every animated franchise since the beginning of time. Even Looney Tunes. In theory, Disney is the exception, but talk to non-animators and they’ll often say that it is the characters that draw them in. Inexplicable, I know – Disney? “Characters”?? What the hell are they talking about?! But I digress – if the animation is the best thing about a cartoon, there’s about a 90% chance that’s not a good thing. Bob and Tex’s cartoons are the exception, (because everything else about them is also pretty brilliant) not the rule, when it comes to what real quality is.

  8. Out of the entire article you only mention Japanese animation once and still gave it a pardon.

    1. It isn’t really a pardon but an acknowledgement that even though anime is terribly limited, they supplant their famous quirks to portray character in place of full[er] animation.

      1. There are good shows and bad ones as well.
        I would like to point how CGI/3D objects changes the industry. Limited 16fps rendering of cars, robots and lately, people. Pay attention to what the background people look like- most will have strange, stick moves and no faces, because those are 3D object. But this gives some budget and plenty of time for animators to focus on the main characters.
        Still, big studios are cutting edges and there is trend called “moments” where animation is so poor that you will laugh at it with eventually fixes or patches on the BD release. But I will agree that, in general, even mediocre show from Japan will look less static then most of what we got on nic or cartoon network prime time shows.

  9. TheGreatWormSpirit

    The funny thing is you can’t address this issue without cartoon fans getting on a high horse as if you’re attacking them personally. This isn’t trying to invalidate their love of a show but it would be nice if they acknowledge this more.

    Apparently even the bare minimum of trying to use unique poses and expressions would be far to expensive to implement in order to bring more life to characters. It’s said to be very tasking on the South Korean animators so they have to stay on model and be slavish to the character design sheets they are given leading everything to be stiff.

    Japanese animation has similar problems due to even lower budgets but their system allows for individual artists within the country to key frame entire scenes on their own without the need to send it off overseas. This leads to rather fluid animation that you just don’t see very often, if ever, in TV animation in the US. This site has plenty of great examples of this.


  10. So, I’ve had the pleasure of working 4 seasons at Floyd County Productions on Fx’s Archer, and am now directing RoughHouse’s new upcoming show Chozen, also done at FCP. Before that, I worked at Radical Axis on shows like Squidbillies and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Hopefully I can lend some personal here, though I can only speak from personal experience, as well as what I’ve heard from others within the industry.

    Unfortunately, there’s just too much that goes into an animated show to give a simple answer here, but here’s a few key points.

    Pipeline: The first mistake that can be made is to assume every studio works in the same pipeline as every other studio. While they may appear similar, each project is very different from the next once you get into it. For example, from what I’ve heard, Avatar/Korra does all their season’s episodes at the same time over an 8-10 month period (many directors, and LOTS of man power), where many other shows progress one episode at a time (1 or 2 directors, and limited man-power). How a show runs a pipeline determines what kind of battles they can fight, and where they can direct their attention over a season’s production period.

    Schedule:This is king – no matter what obstacle may pop up, you must keep to your schedule. As people had eluded to, animation takes TIME, and each episode only gets so much depending on the pipeline. Animation at FCP normally only gets a month or so including keys and tweens (this is not counting storyboards, animatic edits w/ multiple passes, layout design, character design, prop design, character builds, background painting, composting, mixing/mastering/sweetening, and the endless amounts of note passes on each step along the way). So, on such a truncated schedule with SO much to do, you MUST pick, or a show will run the risk of being directionless and disjointed.

    Budget: Budget run hand in hand with schedule. Say you had a great animated sequence done in keys, and you’re ready to knock it out of the park. You’ve lost a couple days because of “who cares”, but your team is pushing to get it done. You’re 2 days to your tween submission deadline, but, oh no, 5 of your animators reached 40 hours on the work week and they have no clearance for overtime, because the budget doesn’t call for it. Ok, bye 5 animators. Next day, 5 more reach 40 hours. Now your down 10 animators, all because budget isn’t there for it. Without the money, animation (and the entire show) will suffer.

    Yes, you can make the argument, if people love what they’re doing, they’ll work for cheaper or for free. You’re not wrong there, but I can tell you from experience, that sentiment goes RIGHT out the window when you’re working 60-80 hour work weeks for months on end, and that’s even WITH overtime pay. Getting burnt out is very real, and a very serious danger to any production.

    Producers/Creators: This is a wall/hurdle any show will face. Shows like Archer have the pleasure of the writer/producers are in house, so the communication process for feedback and notes is clean, fast, and on point. Many shows, however, are not like this – this makes for a back and forth process that can easily drive you mad if not handled correctly. As a director, its your job to make the best show possible, while ALSO pleasing a group of people who might have entirely different visions for the show than you do.

    Also, getting approvals, on everything, is what keeps a show moving forward problem free. This also means, you can’t move as quick as you want, which eats time, schedule, and budget. Have a great animated sequence done in keys, and ready to blast forward on tweens ahead of schedule? Sorry, you have to wait for the producers and creators to approve it, otherwise, you run the risk of tweening something that might get completely axed, thus wasting time and money. This also isn’t the process for every production, as each pipeline is different, but talk to anyone in any animated industry – they will tell you ALL about notes and approvals.

    Man-power: Another puzzle piece that determines much of what happens on any given show. Take Adult Swims 12 Oz. Mouse – created entirely by maybe 3-5 people. Archer has evolved from having about 30 people on staff, to in Season 5 now, something closer to 65-70 people. On Chozen, we’re using something like 17-18 animators, but we send a lot of animation out of house as well, swelling our animation team something closer to 30-40 people. Man-power too, is limited by budget and space.

    So, that ran on a little long, but hopefully that offers some insight into the process. I would also add, I’m behind your sentiments 100% – I wish that producers and creators would allow time and money for shows to be done properly, with the right amount of attention to detail. I also wish we had time to properly train every incoming employee, who’s talent might range from seasoned animation industry vet, to someone who’s fresh out of college with only a year of experience. The reality is, the show must go on, with or without the quality it deserves.

  11. The Looney Tunes fastest animator was turning in 30 feet a week of just pencil animation which is 20 seconds of footage, usually with one to two characters.

    Some of these shows that some of us work on want finished looking animation at sometimes 20 seconds of footage a day, often with many more characters and much more dialog. So do the math and you’ll understand why no TV animation has EVER looked as good as Looney Tunes.

  12. iLearnToAnimate.com

    Animation nowadays focuses a lot on dialogues and speeches because they only need to animate their mouths which are easy, cheaper and gets the story out faster. Sometimes I do switch channels if the animation is boring even when the story is suppose to be interesting.

  13. A few points, mostly from the perspective of action/adventure animation:

    1. A lot of people have pointed out that animation is outsourced, but I want to elaborate on that for a moment. When a show it outsourced, the quality of animation will depend on which overseas studio gets it. Let’s use two shows to illustrate this point: “Legend of Korra” and “Young Justice.”

    LoK has top notch animation. It is fluid and soaked with personality, but only when Studio MIR animates the episode. The first half of season 2 was animated by Studio Pierrot, and the show looks stiff and lifeless. For research, compared episodes 121 and 122, particularly when it comes to acting/comedy scenes.

    YJ isn’t as well animated as LoK, but it has a similar disparity between studios. In the first season, MOI delivered much better work than Lotto. MOI’s episodes 108 and 110 stand out as particularly fluid and well drawn compared to Lotto’s 103 and 114.

    It’s a crapshoot. A studio will often take an animation test, but you can’t REALLY tell if you’ll consistently get that quality. Even on YJ we’d get varying quality from a studio, depending on which team within the studio was assigned to an episode.

    2. On a different subject, I do take issue with your overall idea. Why can’t an animated show still be great, even though limited animation is used because studios don’t want to pony up north of $1m per episode? “Seinfeld” has TERRIBLE cinematography by ANY standard, but nobody considers that relevant because “Seinfeld” is a well written show, and the boring 3-camera setup doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling.

    Animation should be judged no differently. It’s a medium for storytelling, and the quality of animation should only matter when judging how well it allows you to tell your story.

    3. Another issue I take is the overall tone of your article. At the very least, you suggest that animation today is sub-par and should be better.

    I would like to make the argument that in strict technical terms, TV animation has never been better. I personally think that the overall writing has also never been better, but that’s a totally different argument. If you pick the best shows from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, and 10s, anything before the 90s will be stiff, limited, and recycled (save for pilot episodes).

    In the 90s, you start to get series with high quality animation. The Disney series and early/mid 90s WB animation stand out, but most of the contemporary animation was garbage (again, quality wise).

    But in the past 15 years we’ve had series like “Avatar the Last Airbender,” “Legend of Korra,” “Young Justice,” “Motor City,” “Justice League,” “Black Dynamite,” “The Boondocks,” “Samurai Jack,” as well as a number of great looking CG shows like “Transformers Prime,” “Clone Wars,” “Green Lantern,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Even shows like “Super Jail” are well animated while being crudely designed.

    My final though is that of COURSE it’d be awesome if TV animation looked like feature animation. We all work REALLY hard to make sure animated shows look great. Unfortunately most studios just don’t want to pony up the cash for a feature-looking TV show, especially when the target demographic (kids) can’t tell the difference.

    That said, TV animation has come so far in the past 15-20 years that it’s unfair to ignore those strides forward. Every show might not be “Looney Tunes,” but very few shows look like “Flintstones,” “Jonny Quest,” “Scooby Doo,” or “He-Man.”

    1. TheGreatWormSpirit

      To Pierrot, Korra was just a paycheck. Mir seems to want to be considered the crown jewel of South Korean animation studios so they work like they’re giving it their all. I guess that’s commendable in the very least.

    2. All great points JJ. Thanks for sharing.

      In regards to the tone, I’m not so much concerned whether shows are sub-par or not but rather are they as good as they ought to be. Technology should mean that we are seeing improvements in both quality and cost, but thus far, only the latter seems to be true.

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  15. Money, guys.

    It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a single episode of something. We depend on sweat shops every day in foreign countries to get things out on time – and many producers and directors have to let some horrible animation slide for the sake of the deadline.

    I had a chance to talk to some people at Nickelodeon about it. I was fresh out of college (more or less) and wasn’t quiet about my disappointment how there were no animation jobs in television.

    These people don’t hate animation. They don’t think animators are worthless that should be cheap or expendable. They’re sincerely just trying to do what they can with what money they can.

    And yes. That includes huge companies.

  16. First things first. Who the feck things Uncle Grandpa is a laudable show? That show is atrocious!

  17. Everything on the Fox network now looks like a Power Point presentation. I can’t watch it. If you want to see fluid, dynamic animation, learn French. In Spain the guys at Headless are also terrific. Japanese style, shot planning and hand drawn effects are lovely, but I’ll stick with the EU for tops in movement.

    I asked a guy who storyboards for McFarelane what the software pipeline was. He said Storyboard Pro, period. All the motion is done in a storyboard app. There’s your answer.

  18. One reason that I can point to is Toon-Boom Character Animation Rigging. It’s pretty much a quasi 3D puppet using flat graphics & minus the Z Depth Axis. This is definitely not the only reason. Another big reason is budgets and more importantly lack of actual production time. You’ll never get Warner-Brothers or Disney or Pixar Level Animation IN ANY PROGRAM without the amount of TIME they allow artists to actually animate. So the real culprits are lack of TIME, Lack of BUDGET, being OUTSOURCE reliant & using a quick fix Puppet-Rig style work flow.

    1. some shows made in toonboom look more fluid and have better animation than handrawn cartoons like Wander over yonder and Star vs the forces of evil My little Pony Friendship is magic has some of the best animation and it is made in adobe flash

  19. The reason animated TV shows don’t have or even need full animation is simple: TV is a different medium than the movies.

    TV tells its stories through dialogue. Or talking. Flip through the TV channels you have, and you can’t watch any channel for more than 8 seconds without hearing someone talk. They even have announcers talk during coverage of golf matches! (If there’s one thing that is visual, it’s watching someone trying to sink a putt.) And yet they have announcers talking, telling us the stakes if the golfer misses the putt, how the golfer must feel, and how difficult it all is…

    Because TV doesn’t have the time or budget to SHOW all of that stuff. And to be successful, it doesn’t have to. TV is every bit as legitimate a medium as film.

    TV grew out of radio. TV is just talking with pictures. Don’t believe me? Why there is an entire genre of TV entertainment called the talk show. Would you leave the house, go to the movie theater to watch a talk show? Only one movie that I know of successfully did that, called My Dinner With Andre. Only one movie.

    Movies are different. They show you the story. Movies started out as a purely visual medium. There was no dialogue, and relatively few title cards. It is not unusual to watch a movie and see a minute or more go by when there is no dialogue. Sound, sure. Music, sure. But no dialogue.

    Think about it – many great movie movie moments are dialogue free. When we first saw the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, there was no need to have the characters tell us how this moment was a dream come true for them. The direction, acting, editing and music SHOWED us that.

    While TV can show us a story through action, it rarely ever does. (And I mean TV from anywhere on the globe, not just the USA.)

    Fully animated characters show us who they are and how they feel by their actions. But 99% of the time animated TV characters show how they feel by what they say, or how they say it. And that is true for just about every character on TV, animated or live action.

    So give The Simpsons and Family Guy a break. They act out stories, they make you laugh, break your heart – but they can’t do it without dialogue. They are TV characters doing what everyone else on TV does all the time – talk.

    If you want full animation, better hike on down to the local cinema. Animated characters are running at the mouth there too, but sometimes they get their moments to SHOW us who they are, and how they feel. They have to – that’s part of what a successful film requires.

    1. The Simpsons uses alot of Cartoonish Physical comedy it’s not all talking in fact you can sometimes tell what is going on if you mute it new and old

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