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Making Toons That Sell Without Selling Out
By Bill Plympton
Focal PressCopyright © 2012 Elsevier, Inc.
All right reserved.
The Second Golden Age of Animation
You students today are extremely fortunate to be living in a time that many people refer to as the Second Golden Age of Animation. You should now bend down and kiss your Wacom tablet, laptop, computer workstation, or whatever you use to create cartoons in eternal thanks for being born in a blessed time for animators. As for myself, I will kiss my ancient wooden drawing table and light box.
The First Golden Age of Animation lasted from around 1930 to 1956 and pretty much coincided with Walt Disney's rise to power, but then Walt got bored and directed his energies to television, live action, and theme parks.
In my opinion, this era created some of the most wonderful characters ever: Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Popeye, Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the Road Runner—and great films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, Song of the South, Dumbo, "Red Hot Riding Hood," and "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery."
Jobs in animation were plentiful. Because no one studied animation in school and there were no graduate programs, most early animators were political or humor cartoonists looking for extra money. Suddenly, because of Disney, these part-time cartoonists became superstars, going from studio to studio and project to project, and each time they changed jobs, they got a big bump in pay—kind of like today's superstar athletes.
However, for many reasons, the period from the late 1950s to the 1980s became the Death Valley of animation. I think the prominence of TV animation killed off the great cartoons. All of the Hanna-Barbera and Rankin/Bass series showed that animation didn't have to cost as much or use as many great artists. Also, movie theaters decided to cut back on showing short films before the main features. So all of this great reservoir of talent were forced to either retire or work on Hanna-Barbera's crap.
Things then mysteriously changed. For some strange reason, by the mid-1980s, animation started to wake up. The art form finally passed through the arid desert of TV cartoons and arrived in the lush valley of the Second Golden Age of Animation. I believe it was just a happy accident that all of these great influences came together in just a few short years.
MTV started showing animation in the 1980s; Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was a huge hit. Japanese animation, including Akira and Hayao Miyazaki's films, started to invade American shores. The Disney studio decided to get back into animation with films such as The Little Mermaid and The Rescuers Down Under, which were both moneymakers. And of course, The Simpsons showed that TV animation could be biting and controversial—and not just for kids.
I believe one main reason for this huge animation revival was an audience ready for an art form that took their minds into a whole new realm of imagination. After years of true-to-life, hard-core, politically relevant films, the audience was ready for magic and fantasy, and animation was the only art form that could take the viewer to different worlds so easily—luckily for you, dear readers, because animation is now ubiquitous and extremely profitable. In 2010, five of the top ten grossing films were animated: Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, Shrek Forever After, How to Train Your Dragon, and Tangled.
Animation studios are starting up all over the world—India and China are making a big push to overtake the United States in animation production, and France and Germany are putting government funds into animation production. Everyone all over the world sees the financial success of Pixar, DreamWorks, and Blue Sky Studios, and they want to emulate these studios' stupendous profits.
What does this mean for young animators looking for work? Money! Not just jobs, but opportunities to create stories that are different, exciting, and moving. And that's what this book is about: how you can be part of this never-ending (I hope) explosion of animated cartoons. This book, I believe, will ably prepare you to be a creative and successful participant in the Second Golden Age of Animation.
This question may be the most important one in this book. I do a lot of press interviews, but I'm never asked this question: "Why do I make animation?" I believe that a person's answer to this question has a great bearing on his or her success or failure. There are numerous answers; in fact, there are almost as many possible answers as there are animators: money, awards, approval from family and friends, stardom, self-esteem, creative outlet, childhood fantasy, and so on. They're all valid reasons.
But I will now give you my (numerous) answers:
1. Boredom—I find it very entertaining and amusing to create cartoons; it keeps life interesting.
2. Fear—Fear of failure, poverty, and unemployment. A wasted life.
3. The sound of laughter—I love making people laugh; it gives me a great feeling, knowing that I'm responsible for people's enjoyment.
4. Playing God—The high I get from spending all day creating whole worlds from my imagination.
There are other reasons, of course, but those are the main ones.
I often talk to students who believe that once they get a job at Pixar, they'll be rock-star rich. That's fine, but I'm not really in it for the money. In fact, I make my own sandwiches for lunch—I'm not a gourmet, just give me food to keep me drawing; all of my clothes are secondhand; I don't have a car; and I don't do drugs—all of my profits go into my next feature film.
For me, the biggest reason is that I love to draw! I sometimes draw all day, from 6:00 in the morning to 10:00 at night—and after these all-day sessions, I feel great! Refreshed! Like that was the best day of my life! I'm reborn! I don't exactly know why, but to me drawing is an exercise in self-discovery—I'm trying to see how good I can get and to experiment with how interesting I can make my drawings and my story.
Gourmets are obsessed with what they put into their mouths—I love what goes into my eyes; you could call me a visual gourmand.
I think that if I were ever arrested (though I can't imagine what for) and thrown in jail, I would thrive there. I'd finally have some peace and quiet to draw my films. If I did a five-year stretch, I'd emerge from prison with two feature films completed—how cool is that? I'd be the happiest guy in prison.
In fact, I'm so obsessed with the pencil that I fantasize that I will die because of the pencil. I plan out little scenarios of my death. Perhaps I'll be drawing such long hours that I fall asleep at the drawing board, and my head falls to the table, with the sharp end of the pencil piercing my eye and going into my brain.
Or perhaps I'll be walking across my studio, I won't see the pencil on the floor, I'll step on it, my feet will slip out from under me, and I'll crack my skull on my art table. Or after working late one night in bed, I'll fall asleep and roll over, piercing my heart with a discarded pencil.
Ironic, isn't it? It's like they say: "You live by the pencil, you die by the pencil."
Chapter TwoMY HISTORY
My earliest memory of animation—and remember, this was many years ago, and I don't have a photographic memory—is watching cartoons on TV at the age of 5.
I loved the craziness, the surrealism, and the humor of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Popeye. Then along came the Disney shows—The Wonderful World of Disney and The Mickey Mouse Club. (I was a card-carrying member.)
I'm always amazed at the huge influence Walt Disney has had on our culture. If he had only created Mickey Mouse, that would be huge, but he also pioneered animated features and paved the way for the Pixar, DreamWorks, and Blue Sky films of today. He was also one of the first to show how merchandising can significantly increase a studio's income.
His studio was the first to move full force into television, at a time when all of the other film studios were deathly afraid of electronic media. And, of course, he was the guy who reinvented and reinvigorated amusement parks. Plus, he knew how to synthesize all of these elements—TV, films, amusement parks, merchandising—into building a huge brand of cartoons and fantasy. Mr. Walt Disney gets my vote as the greatest entertainer of the twentieth century.
So I would draw from memory all of these cartoon characters that I loved so much. But I never had enough paper, and I was forced to steal old envelopes and typing paper from my folks to draw on.
I remember one time very clearly—I must have been around 7 or 8—when my dad gave me one of those phone notepads that was about 4 × 3 inches because I was always running out of paper. I was so excited! Finally, I could draw everything I wanted and never run out of paper! (There were about 100 sheets in the pad.)
So I started with the simple things—cars, trucks, airplanes, houses, animals, trees—and then I got to people, and I realized that there weren't enough sheets of paper for all my planned drawings. "Wow," I thought, "I'm going to need a lot more of these notepads."
Finally, my folks realized that this cartoon habit I had was something serious—a phase that I was never going to outgrow—so they figured they might as well use it to keep me out of trouble. They started buying me stuff like an easel, a paint set, a palette, paper, a drawing board, a pencil sharpener, and other supplies.
I was so excited about creating art that I didn't know which direction would be the best for me. I loved cartoons, so maybe I'd work for Uncle Walt. I loved the Sunday funnies, so maybe I'd be like Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame. I loved spot gags, so maybe I'd do cartoons for the New Yorker, like Charles Addams. I loved drawing cars, so maybe I'd move to Detroit and draw the cars of tomorrow. I loved painting, so maybe I'd move to New York and become a bohemian painter. I loved illustration, so maybe I'd study at the Art Center in Los Angeles and become an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post, like Norman Rockwell.
Which direction to take my budding art talent? It was a tough decision for a kid, but there were two things that influenced my decision to become an animator.
My folks were very outgoing; they loved to party, and their parties were legendary. Sometimes, late at night when I was supposed to be in bed, I'd sneak up the stairs and spy on the wild party. My dad was usually the center of attention because he was so damn funny.
I marveled at how he was able to keep everyone's attention with his antics and jokes—wouldn't it be great if I were able to amuse people like that some day? That would be the best job in the world!
The second event that directed my career happened when I spotted the Preston Blair book Animation in my local department store. I'd never heard of Mr. Blair before, though I'd certainly seen his work on TV (Disney and MGM cartoons), and that book changed my life.
The way he used a pencil to create emotion, movement, and humor in the book showed me how the cartoons I'd seen on TV were made and how anyone who could draw could also make cartoons. Wow—what a revelation! I'd always imagined that Walt Disney drew all the cartoons himself, and there was no way I could replace the great Mr. Disney.
I remember watching a 1941 Disney feature called The Reluctant Dragon on TV in the mid 1950s; included with the film was footage of Robert Benchley going behind the scenes at the studio to see how animated films were made. There they were, right before my eyes: the animators! These are the guys that create the funny drawings! This is what I want to do—that's the job for me!
And once Mr. Blair's book showed me those secrets, hot damn: I was going to be an animator! My direction was clear; my goal was set. Next I had to study the greats by watching as many cartoons as possible to see how the magic was created. Even though I lived way out in the country far away from movie cinemas, art galleries, or museums, I took to hoarding anything that had to do with animation. I remember saving a Saturday Evening Post article from the early 1960s about Walt Disney. I bought Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck comics to study the art and stories.
I became a big fan of Charles Addams—I admired how he used people's pain, death, and suffering as a source of humor. How could he do that? We're supposed to feel sorry for people in pain. He was the father of so-called sick humor or dark humor that's so popular in the films and cartoons we see today.
Excerpted from Making Toons That Sell Without Selling Out by Bill Plympton Copyright © 2012 by Elsevier, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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