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Animation in the United States in the television era

From Academic Kids

History of animation
in the United States
The Silent Era
The Golden Age
The TV Era
The Renaissance
Contents

The 1950s to the 1980s

The quality of animation from the major Hollywood studios began to decline in the 1950s, though this decline was gradual. Both the Warner Bros. and MGM cartoon studios were at the peak of their creativity at the beginning of the decade. The Hollywood cartoon studios gradually moved away from the lush, realistic detail of the 1940s to a more simplistic, less realistic style of animation. The influence of UPA had caused a number of studio heads to literally order their cartoon studios to "make cartoons like UPA!," and the effect was seen on the screens.

In particular, the cartoons of Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. reached a peak that has rarely been equalled in the entire history of animation. While Jones did produce a number of mediocre-quality cartoons (that were occasionally cruel and violent), much of his output of the 1950s consisted of one classic cartoon after another, with such unforgettable titles the highly popular Road Runner series, the "Bugs Bunny vs. Daffy Duck" cartoons, and the great classics Duck Amuck, What's Opera Doc?, Rabbit of Seville, Feed the Kitty, and many others. Duck Amuck and What's Opera, Doc? are considered "culturally significant" by the United States government, and thus have been added to the U.S. National Film Registry.

The MGM cartoons of the 1950s also continued the award-winning streak that began in the 1940s. The Tom and Jerry series won two more Oscars for the studio, and Tex Avery's legendary stint continued up until the studio closed its cartoon division in 1955. MGM closed its cartoon unit because of high production costs; the cartoons had literally become too expensive to continue to make.

The Paramount cartoon series did not fare as well, however. The Famous Studios cartoons saw a rapid decline in quality in the later half of the 1940s after World War II ended, and the cartoons became more dependent on formulas and violence. The 1950s saw the introduction of Casper the Friendly Ghost and Herman and Katnip, while even the Popeye the Sailor series lost much of its creativity and originality. The Paramount cartoons sank to the level of theater time-fillers, and by the time the 1960s began they were largely forgettable.

The sister industry to animation, stop motion, reached the height of its popularity during the 1950s. The exploding popularity of science fiction films lead to an exponential development in the field of special effects, and animator George Pál became the producer of several popular special-effects laden films. Meanwhile, Ray Harryhausen's work on such films as Earth vs the Flying Saucers, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms drew in large crowds and encouraged the development of "realistic" special effects in films. These effects used many of the same techniques as cel animation, but still the two media did not often come together. Stop motion developed to the point where Douglas Trumbull's effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey seemed lifelike to an unearthly degree.

Hollywood special effects continued to develop in a manner that largely avoided cel animation, though several memorable animated sequences were included in live-action feature films of the era. The most famous of these was a scene during the movie Anchors Aweigh, in which actor Gene Kelly danced with an animated Jerry Mouse (of Tom and Jerry fame). But except for occasional sequences of this sort, the only real integration of cel animation into live-action films came in the development of animated credit and title sequences. Saul Bass' opening sequences for Alfred Hitchcock's films (including Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho are legendary, and he had several imitators. Likewise, the opening title sequence of the Pink Panther film series were popular enough to give rise to a series of cartoons based upon the character of the same name.

Walt Disney's animation studio contributed to the special effects of the movie Forbidden Planet, but this was the exception rather than the norm during this period of cinema history.

Disney's animated feature films continued to draw in large crowds through the 1950s. After a series of feature films in the late 1940s that were essentially series of short cartoons strung together, the studio saw a return to the successful formula of adapting fairy tales and children's stories to animation. Disney produced a number of classic films in the 1950s, including Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, though even Disney found it impossible to reproduce the stunning realism of Fantasia and Pinocchio. One Hundred and One Dalmatians in particular was an experiment in stylization that followed in the footsteps of UPA. If Disney seemed to be reverting more to formula instead of taking bold risks, this was because he had expanded into live-action feature film production and the development of his theme park, Disneyland. This proved to be shrewd business move on his part, as Disney made a successful transition to the new medium of television -- a new medium that changed the state of animation forever.

Cartoons on TV

Cartoons didn't used to be just for kids. Cartoons in the Golden Age, such as Red Hot Riding Hood, contained topical and often suggestive humor, though they were seen primarily as "children's entertainment" by movie exhibitors. This point of view prevailed when the new medium of television began showing cartoons in the late 1940s.

One of the very first images to be broadcast over television was that of Felix the Cat. As TV became a phenomenon and began to draw audiences away from movie theaters, many children's TV shows included airings of theatrical cartoons in their schedules, and this introduced a new generation of children to the cartoons of the 1920s and 1930s. Cartoon producer Paul Terry sold the rights to the Terrytoons cartoon library to television and retired from the business in the early 1950s. This guaranteed a long life for the characters of Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle, whose cartoons were syndicated and rerun in children's television programming blocks for the next thirty to forty years.

Walt Disney also quickly capitalized on the medium of television with his own weekly TV series, Disneyland. This show, which was essentially a weekly half-our commercial for Disney, popularized his new Disneyland theme park. It also began a decades-long series of TV broadcasts of Disney cartoons, which later expanded into the show Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. However, Disney largely decided against creating original television animation, recognizing that the economics of the medium could not support his production standards. However, he ordered the creation of one character, Ludwig Van Drake for original animation that attempted to create seemless links to the various theatrical shorts presented as one complete show episode.

The first major animation studio to produce cartoons especially for television was Hanna-Barbera Productions. When MGM closed its cartoon studio in 1955, Hanna-Barbera began producing cartoons directly for television, finding an audience in the evening "family hour" time.

The first prime-time animated series from Hanna-Barbera were The Ruff & Reddy Show (1957) and Huckleberry Hound (1958), though the studio hit its stride in 1960s when it scored with The Flintstones. This was the first half-hour "sitcom" cartoon, and like many of its successors it was originally aired during prime time when the whole family would be watching television. The Flintstones was the first of several prime-time animated series from Hanna-Barbera, which included the acclaimed Jonny Quest, generally thought of as Hanna-Barbera's best television work; however, prime-time animation did not produce any other high-rated TV series, and Hanna-Barbera turned its efforts to the growing market for Saturday morning cartoons.

One of the problems with producing animation for television was the extremely labor intensive animation process. While theatrical short subjects were previously produced in six month cycles or longer, network television needed a season of 10-20 half hour episodes each year! This led to a number of shortcut techniques to speed up the production process, and the techniques of limited animation were applied to produce a great number of quickly-produced, low-budget TV cartoons. The mass production of TV cartoons led to a rapid decrease in quality for TV animation in general, so that by the time the 1960s dawned cartoons for television had already sunk to an embarrassing level.

The UPA studio was one of the first victims of the TV-animation market. The quality of the UPA theatrical shorts had decreased in quality since John Hubley left the studio, and UPA turned to television to sustain itself. This proved to be a death-knell for its animation studio. The two UPA TV series Mister Magoo and Dick Tracy were of excruciating quality, and while they retained some of the visual flair that had rocked the animation industry, the wretched quality of the stories turned viewers off and doomed the studio. UPA had abandoned animation production completely by the late 1960s.

The Jay Ward studio, producer of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, used limited animation in its series, but the lack of visual effects was made up for by clever writing and witty humor.

The Decline of Animation

The 1960s saw a decline in the entire animation industry that affected the medium as a whole for over twenty years. The cartoon creations of all the Hollywood studios seemed to be affected by an apathy that led to a general decline in quality for the industry. Creativity and originality in animation moved largely underground, to the point where quality animated films were largely produced by small, independent producers, or in countries other than America.

In 1961, Walt Disney helped to establish the California Institute of the Arts. The founding of the institute was both a philanthropic gesture and a savvy investment by Disney, as the school provided plenty of creative talent for the company in the years to come. CalArts and other peer institutions would have an important role in the animation revival of the 1990s.

Meanwhile, although Walt Disney's films of the 1960s (Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book) still generated hefty revenue for the studio, his empire was rocked to its core when Disney passed away from lung cancer in 1966. The Disney company had trouble finding a new direction to move in after Walt's death, and the production of live-action and animated feature films suffered as a result. While the studio tried to remain true to his vision (a common catchphrase of the time was "What would Walt do?"), later Disney films such as The Aristocats and Robin Hood were lackluster productions that seemed to be a shadow of the studio's glory days.

Warner Bros. shut down its animation studio completely, and the directors of Termite Terrace went their separate ways. Friz Freleng was a co-founder of DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, and the company entered the market of TV animation with a number of Saturday morning series that were largely lost in the vast wasteland of low-quality TV cartoons. Freleng did produce a number of Pink Panther cartoons during the 1960s.

Chuck Jones, on the other hand, refused to compromise the quality of his animation. His own company, Tower 12 Productions, worked with MGM on the Tom and Jerry series in the 1960s, but with only mediocre results. Jones then began producing a number of high-quality animated "TV specials" that avoided the necessity of producing vast numbers of episodes of a continuing TV series. His most famous TV episode was How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, an adaptation of the Dr. Seuss story that has become an unforgettable holiday classic. Jones also produced three animated adaptations of short stories from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, as well as a full-length feature film entitled The Phantom Tollbooth.

The most successful animated feature of the late 1960s was Yellow Submarine, whose director, George Dunning, was an independent animator who did not come from the rigid Hollywood system of cartoon production. But other than this film, high-quality animation for the movies was in danger of becoming a lost art. The industry had become stagnant and in need of change, and the most prominent attempt to bring change came from another up-and-coming young director, Ralph Bakshi.

Moving into feature films after attempting to save the Famous Studios animation studio from being closed by Paramount, Bakshi shocked audiences by producing the first X-rated animated feature film, Fritz the Cat. The movie was a box-office hit. It inspired Bakshi to produce a string of animated feature films (not necessarily X-rated) aimed at adult audiences rather than kids, with the most famous of these films being an ambitious animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. But despite the critical acceptance of his films, they failed to have a major impact on Hollywood. Few other animators or studios dared to follow in Bakshi's footsteps, and when the quality of his films decreased (as he relied more and more on rotoscoping), Bakshi's influence dwindled.

A few attempts were made to produce independent feature-length animated films in the 1970s. Despite the efforts put into such films as Watership Down, Heavy Metal, and Disney's The Rescuers, the genre of animation descended into a doldrums that it seemed unable to escape from.

Commercialization and counterculture

Animation on television focused almost exclusively on children, to the point where Saturday morning TV broadcasts on the TV networks were aimed primarily at kids. The tradition of getting up early to watch Saturday morning cartoons became a weekly ritual for millions of American kids, and the networks were glad to oblige by providing hours-long blocks of cartoon shows, most of which were crudely written and poorly animated. But the children watched these shows anyway, and Hanna-Barbera Productions became the leader in the production of TV cartoons for children. A number of other studios produced TV cartoons, but the lion's share came from Hanna-Barbera. In spite of persistent attempts by rival animation studios Filmation (Fat Albert, The Archies) and DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (Pink Panther) to capture audiences, Hanna-Barbera had developed a virtual monopoly on TV cartoons by the 1970s. This led to a considerable decline in quality on Saturday mornings; there was no incentive for Hanna-Barbera to produce high-quality animation because when a show was cancelled by the network, it was swiftly replaced by another Hanna-Barbera show of equally dismal quality. While some efforts at creativity were made by up-and-coming animators such as Mark Evanier, their efforts were lost amid a flood of cheaply-produced cartoons.

The only inspired animated efforts on television during the period of the 1960s through the 1980s came from prime-time animated TV special. Because these one-shot cartoons were aired during prime-time hours (and thus had to appeal to adults as well as children), they had to obtain higher ratings than their Saturday and weekday counterparts. CBS in particular allowed a large number of animated TV specials to air on its network, and several of these have become cherished classics (now available on video). The Rankin-Bass studio produced a number of stop-motion specials geared towards popular holidays (including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer); while Bill Melendez's long-running series of Peanuts specials won numerous awards.

But the real creativity in animation came from independent animators who produced independent animated short films that were rarely seen outside of "art house" movie theaters. As the Hollywood animation studios faded, a number of independent producers of animation continued to make experimental, artistic animated films that explored new artistic territory in the medium of animation. Short films such as The Critic, Bambi Meets Godzilla, Lupo the Butcher, and many others were almost unknown to mainstream audiences; however, these independent animated films continued to keep the yearly category of the Academy Award for Animated Short Film alive, as well as introducing a number of new names into the animation industry—names that would begin to bring much-needed change to the industry in the 1980s.

During the 1980s, the Reagan administration repealed a number of regulations on television; among other things, it greatly loosened the standards a TV show had to meet to be considered "educational" (and thus worthy for viewing by children). Toy manufacturers and marketers took advantage of these new standards, and the first half of the decade saw the introduction of a wave of toy-based cartoons that were widely criticized for being little more than half-hour TV commercials for toys and video games. These cartoons, including G.I. Joe, Transformers, Care Bears, Pac-Man, Saturday Supercade, and many others were often cited as examples of poor writing and animation; nevertheless, they were a big hit with young viewing audiences. They were also the first cartoons to seriously threaten the dominance of Hanna-Barbera for the kids' viewing market.

In 1981, Friz Freleng retired. The DePatie-Freleng Enterprises studio was sold to Marvel Comics, and it continued under his lead as Marvel Productions Ltd. This new studio focused almost exclusively on toy merchandising, and it found a new audience among young viewers. Despite their low quality, the Marvel Productions cartoons (especially G.I. Joe and Transformers) offered a change of pace from the formula writing offered by Hanna-Barbera's continuing series.

Throughout this period, Japanese anime production made a limited impact on the North American market. The most notable work were the television series like Astroboy and Speed Racer in the 1960s, Battle of The Planets and Star Blazers in the 1970s and Voltron and Robotech in the 1980s. As a rule, the imported series were heavily censored to fit the preconceived idea of children's fare with Robotech largely being an exception. Although, their impact on the art in North America was minimal for decades, the distinctive nature of the anime series created a cult following that grew gradually until the 1980s when Robotech, with its complex storylines and frank depiction of violence created the groundswell that would lead to the major influx of anime popularity starting in the 1990s,

The 1980s also saw the rise of the music video industry, spearheaded by MTV. Artistic experimentation in these short films often resulted in the production of lush, creative animated sequences that reminded viewers of the potential of animation as something other than poorly animated Saturday morning cartoons. A number of memorable animated videos were produced during the heyday of MTV, including "Take On Me" by A-Ha; "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel; "Money For Nothing" by Dire Straits; and "Harlem Shuffle" by The Rolling Stones (the animated sequences in this video were directed by Ralph Bakshi).

Historic Cartoons of the TV Era

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