My inspiration and friend Steven Heller has written what seems like his 1000th book on graphic design called Becoming a Digital Designer (with David Womack). He conducted an interview with NNN founder Tim Shey (which was particularly inspirational to Tim, who’s been a Steve fan himself for years) and one with me.
The New Golden Age of Animation
An Interview with Fred Seibert, president of Frederator, New York City
Q: There was a golden age of animation with Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead back in the 1990s. Are we still in the golden age?
Fred: I guess I might refer to a “silver age” of animation we’re in; it’s hard for me to believe — as good as the creative period we’re in — anything could be as good as the years that gave us Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Felix, Donald Duck, Pinocchio, and all the others. That being said…
It’s been an amazing fifteen years, and there’s no end in sight. Original cartoons are still on the rise. First The Simpsons, then R&S, B&B, and Rugrats. South Park, Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Cow and Chicken, Johnny Bravo. And just within the last four years: The Fairly Oddparents, Jimmy Neutron, and the first megastar of the age, the modern Bugs Bunny, SpongeBob. In the wings: My Life as a Teenage Robot, ChalkZone, and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. And many people would think I’m narrow-minded if I ignored features like Toy Story and Finding Nemo.
The business of television began a seismic change in the eighties, which really became mature in the nineties, and that maturity created the circumstances that allowed for a revival of animation as a powerful commercial art form. In 1983, the average home in America has four channels of television; by 1988 that same home had twenty-seven channels (and many had fifty or more). Competitive pressures to launch mass-appeal programming forced cable networks to create, and then create some more; the traditional broadcast networks were fiddling while their symbolic Rome burned.
Q: Actually, weren’t new viewers roaming over to an increased number of more interesting stations?
Fred: The broadcasters still had the largest audiences and made the most money, so there was laughter at what they thought were amateur efforts from the upstarts; the loss of audience share the traditional networks were experiencing were considered negligible. Meanwhile, the cables were learning the new craft of show business, saving their money for programming production war chests, and realizing that innovating past the stale network fare was the way to capture the audience attention.
All in all, the ambitions of a creatively pent-up creative community, and the force of new cable-centric capitalism, met in an explosion of innovation we’re still feeling today.
Q: The bar seems to have been pushed higher on TV and film. Kids’ fare is much more adventurous. Does this mean that the market for challenging animation is large?
Fred: The audience isn’t stupid, no matter what executives think. Given the choice between Hanna-Barbera’s The Snorks and Hanna-Barbera’s Dexter’s Laboratory, they can recognize the superior comedy.
That being said, I’m not so sure the market is actually larger than it was before the cable age; the population is marginally larger and still watching the same amount of TV weekly. But the competitive environment — jeez! An average of more than one hundred channels are trying to get a piece of your viewing time. In the past, a network looked forward to a 30 percent share of the audience for a hit; now it’s happy with 5 percent (and 1 percent or 2 percent for cable!). The result is that each program and each channel has to fight harder and harder with every character and every story.
Before 1980, the viewer has no choice; if you wanted to watch cartoons, maybe watching crappy ones was better than nothing. Today the audience must be satisfied, they truly can watch another show, or watch a DVD, or go online and find cartoons there.
Q: You’ve been in the forefront of new animation. How do you find new talent?
Fred: Isn’t that the magic question? Ten years ago I didn’t need to look far. In the trenches of the animation business were hundreds of classically trained animators who were toiling on the Yo Yogi! (the adventures of a teenage Yogi Bear, hangin’ at the mall) or Fish Police. These folks were dying to save the business they had trained their whole lives to join. We would put out the word we were seriously interested in the animator’s stories (for forty years the creative people were merely the hands of management’s ideas); over five thousand pitches were presented for our first set of forty-eight short films. And dozens of world-class hits were launched.
Today, our net has extended significantly wider because our competition has caught on and also scooped up the most available talent. There are many American and international cities with centers of cartooning that haven’t participated in the new hit boom. We’re busy setting up development centers all around the world.
Q: How did the artists of the golden age achieve their successes? And does this open the door even wider for students today?
Fred: As you might imagine, there are lots of parallels, but plenty of differences between the golden age and today.
In the first half of the twentieth century, it was a dog-eat-dog world in animation, though it had a true innocence. Many artists looked to animation as a career because it employed so many more men (it was primarily men, white men at that) than any other cartooning outlet. But there was no formal training, so he had to find a job at a studio that was willing to train him, teach him the rudiments of a new art form (actually, sometimes he needed to invent the steps). He had to figure out how to draw, animate, sure, but also how to tell a story, a funny story, with characters that were better than the competition.
And until the 1940s there was not even any geographic center; New York and California had the most successful studios, with Chicago and Miami weighing in, too. The employment network was fueled by friendships, often started in childhood or nurtured at the entry-level studios, and often an artist friend dragged in a completely untrained, talented friend and helped him become a story man, or a production manager. Additionally, all aspects of an animated film were made on-site, so there was a lot of room to train as an in-betweener, a model or layout artist, or as an animator before debuting as a director, trying to take a shot at the golden ring.
Q: What’s the role of the school today, as opposed to the old apprentice system?
Fred: Now there are schools to do the initial training, so few studios use their scarce resources to start talent. And while we do most of the creative production in the studio, layouts and animation are often done off shore, so there are fewer opportunities for artists than in the day. And we expect even entry-level artists to have a minimum standard of skill.
But the market is more open to more kinds of people than ever before. While it’s still a white man’s world, walk through any major studio and you’ll see men and women, African-Americans, Latinos, and Latinas, Asians, Africans.
Q: What must a student have in his gut to be a great cartoon creator? Is it enough just to have skill?
Fred: You know, then and now, the elements of success are pretty similar in cartoons:
Talent: You’ve got to have “it.” I’ll let biologists and psychologists explain what “it” is.
Skill: Animation is an exacting proposition, commercial animation even more so. If you can’t draw, you can’t play. And if you can’t draw, storytelling and directing in cartoons is all that much harder.
Ambition: The most ephemeral, the most ignored, the most misunderstood element of a great creator. The person who wants commercial success brings an extra oomph to his or her films. Trying to appeal to an audience, communicating with their hopes, dreams, and funny bones, is the magic of the modern world. I’ve always admired the Beatles because they had the desire to create great art that didn’t intrude with their craving to amass great fortunes. Great cartoons are motivated by no less.
Q: What does the future hold for kids who are studying cartooning and animation today?
Fred: Whatever they want.