Live-action has a virtual monopoly on lots of the entertainment industry. Animation is slowly making inroads, but one area that has been staunchly resistant to change has been television dramas. Comedy series are a dime a dozen and prove that animation can be popular with adults as well as kids on the small screen, but drama is whole different kettle of fish. Thankfully, some proof has recently come to light that suggests that dramatic animation isn’t as much of a pipe dream as we believe.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an American TV show that aired from 1997 to 2003 that was well received by viewers and critics alike, garnering a dedicated cult following by the end of its run. Toeing the line between drama and comedy isn’t easy, but Buffy managed to do so with ease thanks to a well-rounded cast of characters. Although the series was live-action, animator Stephen Byrne took it upon himself to imagine it as an animated series complete with trailer:
That looks pretty cool doesn’t it? It seems like an interesting kind of show with a good mixture of action and laughs. Throw in some decent animation and you have a series that has the potential to be both popular, and long-lasting. Byrne isn’t shooting into the dark though, because Buffy has been animated before.
Series creator Joss Whedon is no stranger to animation having penned an initial draft for Toy Story (yes, that one.) He’s yet to fully enter the field but he has dipped his toes in the water with this official animated pilot of Buffy that was created during the show’s run:
Even without hindsight, it’s clear that both of these videos exemplify how adaptable animation is to a live-action concept, especially one with supernatural themes like Buffy. Whedon’s version in particular has all the eerie feeling of a darker version of Scooby Doo with a kickass lead protagonist to boot.
Why There’s no Dramatic Animation on TV
So why wasn’t Buffy an animated series at all? (Or indeed, why did not become one.) While there is the obvious reason that no network displayed interest in picking the show up, there are three things that would have stood in the way of such a potentially ground breaking move:
- Audience fragmentation
Animation is constantly ignored, period. It also tends to be ignored in cycles that usually revolve around how successful Disney is on any particular day. While it has slowly faded away from networks other than the main kids ones and FOX, animated content remains on the outer regions of many network’s field of vision.
Buffy as an animated series probably didn’t even factor into the network’s equation when they decided to greenlight it. Why would it though? Animation equals comedy for all to many people and with The Simpsons practically owning the genre back in 1997, even the most basic incentives weren’t there.
The broader degree of ignorance relates to the fact that the limits of what animation can achieve are rarely tested. Paradoxically, it’s when these limits are tested that we see the greatest successes. The Simpsons was a risk in terms of mixing animation with great scriptwriting and it paid off. Toy Story was a risk from a technology and story standpoint (no musical numbers) and it did extremely well. To go back in time a bit, Nickelodeon took a chance on giving creators more of a free-reign with their shows and all three gambles paid off handsomely. When studios and networks are ignorant of what can be attempted with animation, potential shows like an animated Buffy fall by the wayside.
Are audiences apathetic about animation? They are to a certain degree. What it boils down to is whether a show appears better in one form or another. For example, would Family Guy work equally as well if it was a live-action show? Probably not, but what if King of the Hill was shot in live-action? Ah, that’s a trickier one isn’t it? Mike Judge’s creation is so apparently plain that many have wondered for years why it wasn’t just done in live-action and save all the time and money over animating it. The answer is difficult to explain, but it lies in how the show still looks mostly up to date, while live-action shows from the same time as the show’s premiere look decidedly 90s today.
In Buffy’s case, there is almost certainly a degree of apathy at play. Since the show can work equally well in both forms, live-action wins out because it is quicker and cheaper to produce. It isn’t so much a case of animation not being good enough, it’s simply a matter of not caring enough about the technique to consider it. Hank Hill was animated because Mike Judge was experienced in animation and it was his preferred method of producing the show. If he wasn’t, it probably would have been live-action too.
Apathy remains a problem because many don’t even see animation as a viable production method. The truth is that it absolutely is viable, but is dependent on the amount of effort invested. A quick and dirty flash show isn’t going to stoke audiences, but a well-crafted show with decent artwork and animation will.
This last trait is a bit different from the others insofar that it wasn’t audience fragmentation that was a problem as was a lack of it. Basically, the late 90s was a time when the major broadcast networks still dominated ratings. They were starting to slip, that’s true, but cable had yet to erode the grasp the networks had on new content and audience favourites. Times have changed in the years since. Today, no network dominates in the way they once did and the most popular broadcast shows have ratings that at one time would have resulted in instant cancellation.
What this means for Buffy is that the size of the audience that was considered barely sustainable for the show (>3 million) is considered quite large today. In other words, shows of a similar (or greater) calibre are being produced right now, but are sustained by audiences that are smaller than what Buffy needed back at the turn of the millennium. Don’t believe me? Breaking Bad, a show widely regarded as one of the best, survived its first two seasons with audiences of less than 2 million.
Essentially, with fragmented audiences, shows have grown more niche in their appeal while remaining profitable. How this applies to Buffy is that the likelihood that an animated version would draw a smaller audience is quite high. When the series was originally produced, that may not have been practical, whereas a live-action version was. If the series was produced today, with a fragmented audience seeking out niche content, it would be possible for the show to acquire an audience that may appear small, but who would in fact be sustainable and profitable.
Personally, it’s disappointing to know that a great opportunity was missed. Hopefully, there is a lesson to be learned that dramatic animation does have the potential to be viable, and high-quality entertainment at the same time. Looking to the future, the continued progression of the technique outside of the kid/comedy straitjacket is essential if it is to survive.