Like many art forms, animation has gone through many periods of good and ba, and like those other forms there were many causes.
In the early years cartoons were done by hand. An artist, or more commonly a team would draw and colour each frame, a time consuming and expensive process. In the late sixties several new methods were developed, including primitive computer graphics, to reduce the cost of animation. At this stage however the result was clumsy. It was pointed out that Wilma Flintstone was nowhere as graceful as Bugs Bunny. Where his motion was fluid, and graceful, hers was blocky and stiff. This was the result of the cheaper animation techniques.
The second factor that lead to the Dark Years, was Television. Not that there’s anything wrong with the medium itself. It’s just that Television provided a huge new market. Prior to the 1960s, Cartoons were mostly just run with a movie. You’d go to the theatre and see a cartoon, a news reel, and the feature film. Suddenly with a television in every home there was a market for several hours of cartoons on Saturday morning and several after school each weekday afternoon. Even more importantly, the people programming had no respect for the children viewing these cartoons. Especially in the after school hours most stations would put on whatever was cheapest. In those days before infomercials, this would be either reruns of old TV shows or, if they were cheap enough, cartoons.
The result of all this initially was reruns of cartoons produced for theatres. Shortly thereafter companies sprung up to fill the gap. Hanna Barbara started with The Flintstones and then branched out with The Jetson’s, Yogi Bear, and many others. The characteristic future of these cartoons were repetitious, formulaic scripts. There’s a joke that Scooby Doo had only one script, and they just changed the names for each episode. The animation itself was poor, with lots of repeated cut scenes that served no purpose to but to fill time, and very poor animation quality. Not just blocky, and crude motions, but items and features would disappear or reappear from scene to scene. Things would change colour from cut to cut. Because quality control was expensive, it was just absent. They cranked out crap, for programmers that did not respect their audience and saw only the bottom line.
But Hannah-Barbara was not the only company putting out poor quality productions. Funimation produced, among other things, Star Trek the Animated Series, and He-Man as well as many others. Depate-Freeling had the advantage of many artists from the Warner Brothers Animation Studios which was closed due to high costs, but this only lasted a few years. This was the period when they were making The Pink Panther series. But soon the talent dwindled, and as it did their output dropped in quality and frequency until they were bought out. Rankin/Bass Productions made a number of holiday specials, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Here Comes Peter Cottontail, and others marked by blocky animation and poor scripts. After initial success, they faded and though they still exist, their productions are few and far between. There were many other small companies that made cartoons, as well as other programming for the Saturday morning/after school periods, most of whom have deservedly vanished without a trace. By the mid 80s much of the cheap animation work was being farmed out to the Far East where cost was less. This was when many of the domestic North American companies folded or were bought out.
The Dark Ages however did not last. Eventually there were several changes that resulted in a Renaissance in Animation. First, Computer Animation, real CGI, came along and the cost dropped dramatically. By the mid 1990s it was possible to produce good quality animated programming on a desktop computer. Reboot was a good example. Disney’s use of Computer Animation for The Rescuers Down Under and Beauty and the Beast marked a sea change. If The Little Mermaid was the end of the hand painted cell animation era, these two films marked the beginning of the high quality computer animation era, followed closely by Toy Story. Hand animation continues but it is vastly rarer. The adoption of CGI by Studio Ghibli, starting with My Neighbours the Yamadas was clear sign, if another was needed, that CGI animation was the future.
The second thing that ended the Dark Ages was a change to television itself. Programmers have always had no respect for children. They’ve always put the cheapest thing possible on. The end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s marked a change to what was cheap. Infomercials were invented. Now programmers could get companies to pay them to run programs. No more scrounging around for something cheap to fill the hours before the parents got up or home from work. Companies were willing to pay stations to run half hour commercials for their products. This was when Saturday mornings became a haven for infomercials about miracle kitchen gadgets, makeup, and appliances. And what about the kids that had been watching cartoons? As I said before, programming executives had and have no respect for them. The other related trend that appeared about that time were commercials masquerading as cartoons. Cartoons that starred Hot Wheels, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, were only made to sell products. This trend has continued till today with cartoons about Lego and Angry Birds, and Bratz dolls appearing on schedules. Once again the programmers were showing a complete lack of respect for their target audience. This lack of respect; only thinking of people who watch cartoons as stupid kids, caused them to miss a huge opportunity: adults that liked quality animation.
Yes, there are adults that like animation. Quality animation with well done scripts and some attention to detail in the graphics. Now, admittedly there are some good shows on, but they are few and far between. To a great extent we’ve just turned to the Internet to get what we want. Ironically, the same technology that allowed networks to buy cheap, poor quality animation, has cost them their most lucrative market, adults that like animation and that are willing to spend money to feed their hobby. Belatedly, Cartoon Network began their Adult Swim block for animation aimed at adults. However they still don’t have any idea what constitutes quality. For every Samurai Jack or Metalocolypse, or early South Park they have many more programs like Squidbillies, Robot Chicken, 12 oz Mouse, Napoleon Dynamite, or Axe Cop, that try to make up for lousy scripts and animation with scatological, racist, and sexist humour. Other networks are no better. The Simpsons ran out of gas after about ten years yet it chugs along because those in power can’t tell that it’s gone flat. Then there’s Fox and the creations of Seth MacFarlane. Family Guy that retreads tired sitcom plots without any understanding of comedy timing or how to do a comedy show. American Dad retreads the same scripts as Family Guy, but done even worse. And we mustn’t forget The Clevelands, a show so racist that when it was introduced even many Fox stations would not air it. The main networks still don’t get it.
The dark ages did have one lasting effect. A generation or two grew up on bad cartoons. To them animation equals poor production values, painfully bad writing, and awkward voiceover work. It’s only with the advent of top quality animated films from the likes of Pixar, and Disney and Studio Ghibli, have some of them rediscovered the power of animation. Yet while they’ll wax poetic about Frozen, most of them missed Spirited Away. They’ll go see Inside Out but would never turn on the TV and watch Phineas and Ferb or Samurai Jack, or Jimmy Two-Shoes, or Stephan Universe, or Camp Lakebottom, or well the list goes on and on. One relative of mine just refuses to watch ANY animation. None. When her kids put on The Lion King, she found something else to do.
That’s too bad, she’s missing some great stuff.here.?