By Patrick Wright
Saturday morning -the short-term payoff after a long week of time tables, cafeteria peas and scholastic reading units. For most children of my age, the hours between 7 and 11 a.m. were spent eating sugary cereal while flipping through the three networks in search of our favorite cartoon friends. Shaggy and Scoob, George Jetson, Papa Smurf, Dirk Dastardly and Mutley; mysteries, comedies and adventures kept us glued to our surrogate mother – television. We grow out of our need for security blankets and action figures, but to put away cartoons, as one of those childhood things, is not so easy. I personally just can’t do it.
Though some of that cartoon programming was pure entertainment to fill space between marketing ploys (my parents probably spent a king’s ransom on Transformers), there was often sophisticated social commentary or political jabs seeded within the storylines. The Warner Brothers family of characters, including Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, were masters at imbedding satire in the writing. Many of these cartoons ran in movie houses prior to newsreel footage of World War II. The cold war allusions in every episode of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle cannot be mistaken.
As a child, these jokes fly right over our heads; watching the same cartoon a decade or more later can make us wonder how we ever missed this hidden subtext. But the cartoons and Disney features of the past were only the beginning of an animation revolution.
Japanese animation of Manga, or Anime as it is commonly known, has grown in the last 20 years far beyond the cult following it enjoys within national boundaries. It has made a significant impression worldwide. My first exposure to this form of animated art was Robotech, a science-fiction space-war drama that ran in the mid 1980s. Much darker than any other cartoon on the air at the time, the plots included revenge, betrayal, love and even death – pretty heavy stuff for a 6-year-old to digest. Plus, there was a good number of transforming robots blown up in the cold expansive battlefields of a futuristic space-war. The series is still a cult classic, and lives on in DVD collections of college students and teenagers.
What heralded the expansion of Anime to the west also spawned a number of pretenders to the throne, knockoff Anime that imitated the style. Followers fueled a sub-genre, while technical advances and bragging rights – not to mention the profit margins – kept it running. Industry one-upmanship and technical advances pushed animators to choreograph more elaborate action sequences and create more realistic movements, as well as increasingly detailed figures and backgrounds. “Akira,” the film adaptation of the best selling graphic novel by Katsuhiro Otomo, remained true to the original artwork, if not to all of its plot lines. The American market also breathed new life into other Anime films of the late ’80s such as “Dragonball Z” and “Vampire Hunter D.”
When Pixar released the first computer generate d animation feature film, “Toy Story,” it was seen as a groundbreaking step forward in computer generated or “CG” animation. The capability of that technology has recently made more advances, in the form of this summer’s “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” “Shrek and “Monster’s Inc.” The future of photo-realistic characters, digital human clones and environments, once only a pipe dream, is becoming a virtual reality on the horizon.
Geared to an audience older than that of the playground set, Anime appears to be one of the few longstanding examples of successful cartoons for big kids. But “Final Fantasy,” though weak on plot, may be a blueprint for an animation feature that can be financially successful sans the G rating. With so few role models, what does the future hold for animated film pioneers who have set their sights on the adult demographic?
UCSB’s Film Studies Dept. has been a fertile breeding ground for would-be animators. Professor Dana Driskell has for many years taught a very popular introductory course in animation and has advised numerous students on their independent studies projects. Driskell has made it a goal to inspire new students with his own passion, a passion that was imbedded at an early age.
“Down in Los Angeles where I was raised, there was once a year an animation festival,” Driskell said. “My mother, who was an architect, would take me to that. I got thinking about art animation and international animation probably a bit earlier than others. Though the focus of [my] course is on the theory behind animation, there is the opportunity for students to produce animated shorts.”
Despite the fact that the animation class focuses primarily on history and criticism, according to Driskell, UCSB students have more access to production than do UCLA undergraduates studying in one of the most renowned film school in the country. Driskell has found that once students get a taste for animation many wish to study at a more advanced level.
“Many years ago, I pushed to do an introduction to animation class,” he said. “From that we usually have a few people that want to do a little more and I have a little animation seminar. It’s a little more select.”
After students complete the seminar, Driskell oversees independent projects that hone industry production skills, while staying firmly rooted in the art of telling stories.
“More often [students] are likely, these days, to pitch something that will be drawn and then scanned into the computer and finished off in the computer and re written back out, in the same way they do Disney features today,” Driskell said.
The hours of an animator are long and hard. The same is true at the university level as at the professional level. But the hard work has often paid off for Driskell’s students.
“We’ve had shows in the past that make it to the finals of the Student Academy Awards. And the only thing they were competing against were graduate school shows, so we’re reasonably lucky on that,” Driskell said.
UCSB alumnus Don Hertzfeldt has been particularly successful and returned to the Film Studies Dept. this past summer to lecture. His Academy Award nominated short animated film, “Rejected,” has most recently been nominated in the upcoming Annie Awards for Outstanding Achievement in an Animated Short Subject. The Annie Awards, which takes place on Nov. 10 in Glendale, Calif., is considered the most prestigious honor for the animation industry. Hertzfeldt was one of Driskell’s students who just couldn’t satiate his desire to pursue animation.
“Ironically, of the four shows [Hertzfeldt produced for] me, he only did one in a conventional class,” Driskell said. “The other three were independent studies. Only his freshman year film, which I still think is one of his best, was done in my conventional filmmaking class.”
That first film, Hertzfeldt’s “Ah, l’amour” is a regular in the formerly underground Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Animation Festival.
“He did that [film] as a freshman here, and hell, it’s a cult classic with T-shirts and memorabilia. Pretty hot. They’re still hawking the T-shirts to this day,” Driskell said.
The community of animators in UCSB’s Film Studies Dept. is a tight-knit set.
“There are very few of us. We’ve always had sort of a fragile world. The number of animators on campus is small. We sort of flock to each other.” Driskell said.
With such a small group of UCSB alumni in the animation industry, it is happenstance that Driskell would recognize the name of another former student on the credits to the newest Pixar film.
“I was watching ‘Monsters, Inc.’ last night and the name came up – Jill Colton – on story development right in the first credits. I find that surprise happens every once in a while. I’ll find one of our majors. We don’t train animators, yet I always have two or three wandering through and many of them have been able to go out and find work,” Driskell said. “We have people on ‘The Simpsons,’ people on ‘King of the Hill,’ people on ‘South Park.’ They just sort of pop up different places.”
The growth of the adult market, which may at first appear to be a new trend with shows such as “South Park,” actually goes back to the birth of animation.
“There’s always been a recognized adult market,” Driskell said. “People have been producing art films and art animation and political commentary animation forever. Before there were too many television sets and kids cartoons, there were cartoons in the movie theaters. You look at the old Fleisher movies with Betty Boop – I mean, the sexual innuendos and the in-your-face sexuality is there. It’s always been around. But there’s no question that a lot of animated shows are aimed at children.”
Driskell feels that it is too simple to distinguish between just two markets for animation.
“Take for instance the things that are done by Pixar. I consider those to be General Audience, as they are rated for the very reason that they appeal to a general audience. It’s not a children’s audience,” he said. “Children can enjoy ‘Monsters, Inc.’ or ‘Toy Story 2,’ but you have to be pretty brain dead as an adult to not be able to pick up on some of the jokes in there that are completely aimed at adults.”
As far as the advances in computer-generated animation in those films, Driskell sees competition as a one-horse race.
“We’ve got some technological shifts happening, but to me the only real force right now that’s doing anything at the pop cultural level would be Pixar, and the rest of these pretenders that are trying to make various things, these are at best derivative,” he said.