Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Past and the Future

Sheridan student Andrew Murray interned this summer at Ireland's Cartoon Saloon. While in Ireland, Andrew saw Bugs Bunny on Broadway, where Warner Bros. cartoons are accompanied by a live orchestra. While this production is not new, Andrew's experiences while watching it caused him to think about the future of drawn animation. Here are his thoughts:
I was in Dublin this weekend and saw Bugs Bunny on Broadway and I just wanted to share my experience regarding it. Because I was blown away by its reception. I wasnt sure what to expect but the show was sold out and litterally every age group was there. Where I was sitting, to my left there were a group of 90 year old women and my right, there was a family whose kids were in their 20s. Smaller kids were there and just adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s were out on dates and of course the single people like me.

But what was amazing was how well received these shorts were. They played Baton Bunny, Feed the Kitty, kill da wabbit ( I cant recall the proper titles of each short), The High Note, even a Bob Clampett short among all the Jones cartoons. But as I looked around, everyone had this HUGE grin on their faces during the show, and people were laughing their heads off. When the March of the Valkrie's started to play you heard the audience mumbling 'Kill Da Wabbit'. and to see that happening it was a real eye opener regarding animation. For the past 4 years I've heard nothing but "where is animation going? what will happen to 2-D?" and last night I was shown that people still really love these shorts. So much so that they came out in droves of all ages to watch them with a live orchestra.

Now Im not going to have the answer as to what the fate will be with 2-D animation but to see the audience react the way they did was amazing and I guess there shouldn't be any concern regarding the fate of Cartoons but perhaps there should be other avenues explored as to how to present them. Those Looney Tunes and MerrieMelodies were really meant to be shown like that with an orchestra. It has such an impact on people.
In a follow up message, Andrew added:
I forgot to mention this before, but as I left, there was a line up to get to the front door and I quote this, because there was a mother asking her son who was about 7ish, how he liked the show and he responded with, "that was the best 2 hours of my life."
I think there are a lot of conclusions to be drawn from this, and not all of them will be popular. The first is that people came out for this because they knew what they would be getting. It was a pre-sold product. While animation professionals and fans have complained about the proliferation of sequels or how The Princess and the Frog looks old fashioned, the fact is that people often like to know what they're buying in advance. A sequel or a straight-down-the-middle Disney feature is a known quantity and these things have a measurable audience.

Nostalgia also plays a part. The Warner Bros. cartoons shown were about 50 years old or more, so for any adult in the audience, it was a chance to revisit a childhood favourite. Just as Disney's Cinderella appealed to adults in 1950 who had seen Snow White as children, The Princess and the Frog will appeal to adults who saw Beauty and the Beast when they were younger.

You could argue that what brought the people to Bugs Bunny on Broadway was the quality of the animation and music. While they are both excellent, I think it misses a larger point. The success of shows like Family Guy and South Park proves that production values are not what audiences primarily respond to. What they respond to is entertainment. Just as one funny person on a bare stage can entertain an audience, so can a good script and soundtrack accompanied by crude visuals.

What distinguishes the Warner Bros. cartoons is their use of funny drawings, funny motion and sophisticated music as their means of communication, but they are not the be-all and end-all of their appeal. The characters, the gags and the dialogue come before anything else and if those things are not working, production values are not going to save them. There are Harman-Ising and Disney shorts that have far more lavish visuals than the Warner Bros. cartoons and music tracks that are the equal of the Warner shorts, but these cartoons are dull and nobody is hiring live orchestras to accompany them.

Animation artists (and especially animation managements) often can't see the forest for the trees. They confuse the motion, the colour, and the music with what entertains audiences. Bugs Bunny on Broadway proves that an audience will still respond to those things when they're in the service of entertaining characters and stories. There's nothing wrong with drawn animation as a medium, so long as film makers understand that entertainment comes first. Craft is no substitute for content.

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