Introduction (get .pdf)
Cartoons over the past 70 years have changed beyond all recognition. Starting with the early black and white, silent, cartoons like “Steamboat Willie” and “Mutt and Jeff” through to modern computer generated ones like “Monsters Inc.” and “A Bugs Life.”
I’m going to be studying six different cartoon houses or studios which have made films and really changed the way cartoons are seen and made. I will look at what technologies they have help to develop and improve. I will also discuss what cartoons had the first appearance of these new technologies in for each company. I will also give an explanation of how they started up. I will then choose which I most admire and most want to study and further develop these topics by analysing and illustrating a selection of six films or programs by that cartoonist or design team.
Cartoon house one: Mutt and Jeff
Bud Fisher’s “Mr A. Mutt” started life as a horizontal daily comic strip in the San Francisco Chronicle, and later was also brought to the wider audience by the newly formed newspaper syndicates. It thus became on of the first successful comic strips in the United States. This daily comic strip later in 1911 was released by the newspaper, by popular demand, as a collection of comic strips known as “Mutt and Jeff”. This was one of the first – and helped started the explosion of – daily comic strips that followed.
In 1925 “Mutt and Jeff” evolved into one of the first silent animations. This version shows how the techniques had improved over ten years.
These early cartoons are what I think evolved into the “Roadrunner” and “Wacky Races” genres and these days even the Simpsons uses elements of this original, although “Mutt and Jeff” shows more realism.
Cartoon house two: Walt Disney and Disney Studios
Walt Disney after losing the rights to “Oswald, the cartoon rabbit” – an earlier project – started sketches of “Mickey Mouse.” The studio’s first cartoon character over 70 years ago. He first appeared in “Steamboat Willie” and Mickey had a voice. This cartoon was the first cartoon with synchronous sound and pictures.
Disney Studios continued to use new technology. After “Steamboat Willie”, Disney wanted to experiment with sound and pictures being a new technology. One of the first cartoons in this new project referred to as “Silly Symphonies” was called “Flowers and Trees”: a black and white cartoon originally, but Walt Disney wanted to start making colour cartoons so he had his staff re-do the whole thing in Technicolor. In 1933 “Three Little Pigs” debuted. It won the Academy Award for Best Cartoon that year and helped Disney develop the use of characterisation in cartoons.
“At last we have achieved true personality in a whole picture” Walt said.
This cartoon was perfectly timed – the great depression was raging on, and the uplifting theme song “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” fitted the mood of the time perfectly.
Disney has always used new technology in his cartoons and he used the Silly Symphony series until 1939 to try out new things that had made 75 of them.
Cartoon house three – Hanna Barbera
Tom, a large grey mischievous cat and Jerry a small brown cheeky yet cute mouse, chase each other around a house destroying furniture and crockery, trashing the kitchen and generally creating chaos. Jerry generally seems to win these fights inflicting huge damage on the poor cat, although in the style of cartoons of the day Tom seems to find being blown up a minor inconvenience in the longer term.
Tom and Jerry was one of the first wide-spread and certainly most famous of the cartoons that brought violence to the cartoon movie scene. These cartoons made by Hanna Barbera lead on to concepts such as Looney Tunes and later elements of modern cartoons such as South Park (compare Kenny’s constant deaths to Wiley Coyote’s tribulations). Walt Disney was unlike these others however, because he felt he was making films for children and doesn’t make the same use of extensive and extreme slapstick.
“Tom and Jerry” was the founder of cartoon violence and has also been the source of satire in the Simpsons in the form of “Itchy and Scratchy.”
Cartoon House four – The Simpsons and Matt Groening.
“The Simpsons” started life out on “The Tracey Ullman Show”. This cartoon family captured the eye of the people at Fox and they gave Matt Groening a thirty minute slot which started in 1990, and “The Simpsons” were born.
This family was characterised as combining satire with consideration of serious issues. I think the family – “America’s number one cartoon family” – are so popular because they reflect the average family with their problems and issues, although the characters are exaggerated. The boss “Mr Burns” is probably how most American men view their bosses, shown as an isolated powerful yet elderly character isolated from the main town in his manor house living a vampire-like life.
The Simpsons has also changed the way cartoons are thought of by adding a certain amount of realism. Developing earlier attempts at trying to make family life cartoons -“the Flintstones” for example – when a character dies in The Simpsons he or she dies for good.
Cartoon House five – South Park studios
The first thing I have learnt about this studio is to take everything they say with a pinch of salt, because the creators enjoy a wacky sense of humour and shroud themselves in surrealism. The creators are two students from the University of Colorado who studied Film – Matt Stone and Trey Parker. They shot a cartoon called “Jesus vs. Frosty” a title later changed to “The Spirit of Christmas” which was the first episode of South Park. This caught the eye of executives at the American Fox network after they sent it to every celebrity in Hollywood, and after initially being rejected by a Fox representative who thought the public would not understand the humour. However a pirate copy became available on the Internet and generated a solid fan base and Fox realised they were onto a good thing.
South Park is well on its way to becoming as popular as the big name cartoons – although it frequently has a rude and vulgar content, it does cover major issues with an ultimately moral attitude.
Some people make the mistake of thinking that it’s a children’s program, but clearly most of the jokes are abstract or adult in theme and would go over a child’s head. For example the satire of the American networks talk shows in the episode “Freak Strike” and the American stance on political correctness in “Cripple Fight.”
The style of animation is very primitive indeed – originally based on “stop/go” animation using cut outs rather than painted film cells. Where the general trend for animation – driven by the clarity and crispness of computer generated works – has been for realism this cartoon has deliberately gone “back to basics” in what is often a self-mocking style. For example in the opening scene of the South Park movie the kids dismiss a film for having “crappy animation” and then are shown jerkily walking off to a silent, dead-pan sound track.
Cartoon house six – Pixar Studios
The studios called Pixar started as part of Lucas Film Ltd when John Lasseter left his animation job at Disney to join filmmaker George Lucas’ special-effects computer group, which would later become P.I.X.A.R. This computer graphics division was purchased by Steve Jobs in 1986 for $10 million, and established as an independent company.
The company went on to make many adverts and short films, also developing new technology and using new software. Short films including “Red Dream”, “Luxo Jr.” and “Tin Toy”, won many Academy Awards and other Awards. In 1992 Pixar made nine adverts and developed CAPS (Computer Assisted Production System) and in the following year the development team at Pixar produced Render Man and received the Scientific and Engineering Academy Award.
In 1995 Pixar went public and floated on the stock market, offering 6,900,000 shares at $22 a share. Also that year “Toy Story” hit U.S. theatres and goes down in history as the first fully computer animated feature film and grossed $192million in the U.S. to become the highest grossing film of the year and making $358 worldwide.
Later in 1997 Pixar released “Geri’s Game” and showed new advances in the ability to animate skin and clothing. In 1998 Pixar and Walt Disney released “A Bug’s Life” and broke all previous U.S. records and became the highest grossing animated release of that year.
All the cartoons that Pixar have released have broken the bounds of modern technology.
Detailed discussion – South Park Studios
All the South Park episodes are centred on and around four American eight-year-olds and their views on current affairs or other mature issues. Also they cover growing up issues and other very adult topics, but all from the points of view of these somewhat cynical children and the adults of the town. For example, the episode “Proper Condom Use” shows the school PTA making the local school to teach the eight-year-olds sex education, which has the effect of making the girls scared of the boys amongst other amusing results.
There are many South Park episodes that make statements about American life, people and politics and I have especially researched:
- “Starvin Marvin in Space”
- “Freak Strike”
- “Osama Bin Laden is a Farty Pants”
- “Mr Hanky the Christmas Poo”
- “Proper Condom Use”
But there are many more South Park episodes that make statements about, morality, politics or attitude.
“Starvin’ Marvin in Space”
Borrowing heavily from the science fiction genres of Star Wars and Star Trek, the episode starts off with an alien flying about in a space ship, using the clichéd “arriving at planet” cut-scene. The Alien, under instructions to make a first-contact with the Earth, then lands and attempts to communicate with some lions in a drought-stricken country which then eat him. This is typical of the extreme cartoon violence of this Cartoon which I referred to earlier.
Meanwhile in an African village a missionary is trying to teach the locals (who are starving) about bibles and God and getting them to do it by saying “Now remember reading bible plus accepting Jesus equals food!” this shows that the makers are trying to show that religion often uses bribes and lies to get desperate peoples to convert to their cause. She asks them to read the bibles, they reply in their native tongue, she tells them “No in God’s language – English!” In this type of cartoon they are apparently not afraid to get too “close to the bone” whether its violence, religion or politics.
The abandoned space ship is then discovered by members of the tribe of the previously introduced character of “Starvin’ Marvin,” their all grouped look down from a hill on the abandoned craft and Marvin is the only one brave enough to explore the ship and he promptly flies off in it, vaguely reminiscent of the film “Flight of the Navigator” with certain detail of the ships interior appearing to match. Part of the humour of this show is its willingness to “steal” and plagiarise from a wide variety of shows, personalities, brand names etc.
The CIA becomes interested in this alien spaceship (dressed in the stereotypical black suits and shades, as you’d expect from X-Files or Men In Black), interrogates the four south park boys and discovers that they know the “ethnic looking boy” since they adopted Marvin in an earlier episode from “Sally Struthers”. They extract this information through torture : rubbing balloons to make a horrible squeaking noise which was very like the “Spanish Inquisition” sketch from Monty Python where the old lady is “tortured” with soft cushions (with all the stuffing up one end) and also by the Comfy Chair (with only a cup of coffee at eleven).
The CIA then go to speak with Sally, who is portrayed as “Jabba the Hutt” from Star Wars, including the voice, Huttese language and insatiable appetite. She agrees to help them find Starvin’ Marvin. Meanwhile Marvin collects the four boys who end up on the alien’s planet Marklar, where they mock the efforts of science fiction writers to make up “alien sounding” languages:
Stan [explaining the missionaries to the Marklar leader]: They use Marklar to try and force Marklar to believe their Marklar. If you let them stay here they will build Marklars and Marklars. They will make all your Marklars believe in Marklar.
Marklar Leader: Young Marklar, your Marklars are very wise.
The whole plot takes off with the CIA and the “evil” Struthers the Hutt (enticed with a carbonite encased Kenny) forming an alliance against the CBC:
Pat Robertson: Here at the 600 Club we need your money to spread the word of Jesus and build more advanced deflector shields for our galactic cruiser. Sally Struthers has a Tydirium Junker, which is the favorite ship of the Hutts, and she has trapped our new CBC ship in a positronic tractor beam. So we’re gonna need an ionic tractor disrupter. Now, not a regular ionic tractor disrupter, but a negative tractor disrupter to spread the word of Jesus.
The episode culminates in the inevitable space battle, rendering the magnificence of the effects in “Star Wars” and similar films into jerkily animated, two-dimensional card. The cheap feel of the finished product again is part of the humour as mentioned earlier, especially funny because of the difference between the original and the South Park version.
“Freak Strike” is mocking American chat shows, saying the people make money out of being on them. The TV Company decide to drop the freaks from the “freak show” and take up a different group of type of people with problems. This makes the freaks want a better deal from the TV company, so they go on strike (hanging around outside the TV company’s headquarters.
Meanwhile Butters (a character brought into the “gang” to replace the supposedly dead Kenny) is persuaded to try to get on the TV chat show as a dare, and because there is a reward for appearing on the show. They decide to turn him into “kid with balls-on-chin” and consult the town’s nerds, who from watching way to many Star Trek’s and the study of Biology, Physics and Chemistry have worked out have to do this stuff. In the end the other freaks on the show that day don’t recognize him, because he’s not a really freak but let him join the union. When they go on strike because of the show cuts previously mentioned things get complicated.
Ironically the show itself gets its material out of mocking the chat shows who they show in turn as exploiting their guests. This is another example of shows like South Park and The Simpsons which are able to take a strong social / political views about things and make what are often quite cruel yet accurate observations. These appear all through the shows whether as the main theme or hidden in brief conversations or events. For example, the passing attack on “trekkies and nerds” is a subtle way of showing that studying whilst “uncool” can actually be useful. What appears to be an obvious attack to appear to be “cool” turns out to be another important social observation.
What is daring about South Park is that its not afraid to attack even the audience themselves. The whole way that “freaks” are shown in the show I think is actually challenging the way people feel they have to maintain a view of things that is “politically correct.” PC is something that South Park loves laughing about (as in “Proper Condom Use”, and in this show the “freaks” with totally absurd and extreme deformities challenge (and for many people go past) the boundaries of good taste. Never mind the embarrassment some might feel trying to interact with a conventional disability – the challenge is now to hold a sensible conversation with someone with a arm growing out of their forehead.
Osama Bin Laden is a Farty Pants
The American people after 9/11 were asking why this happened and South Park tried to answer the question. It starts with their teacher “Miss Choksondick” telling the four eight-year-olds that they have to give a dollar each to an Afganistan child because America has just started a war against them. Then it goes to Afganistan and the four children in that country get the dollars from the South Park boys and in gratitude send back a goat which is all they have. When the large package arrives the adults and military go into a panic and carry out a controlled explosion on it, leaving the goat standing in the wreckage (again showing the indestructibility of characters in cartoons).
The South Park boys eventually decide that they don’t want ot keep the goat and try to return it but because of the war the post service isn’t running there so they have to try to hide it on a US military flight but become locked in all the way to Afganistan. They then go find the Afgan kids to return the goat to them.When the two groups meet the cartoon makers use the opportunity to show that Americans are not loved by all and not necessarily seen as the saviours of the world as they like to portray themselves as being. They boys are kidnapped and taken to Osama Bin Laden’s headquarters where he is depicted as a Bugs Bunny / Loony Tunes type character in contrast to the usual South Park style. The cartoon makers don’t miss this opportunity to mock Osama Bin Laden while at the same time not pulling any punches about American’s “foreign policies”.
After talking to the boys Osama makes a ransom video with the goat whom the American media think is Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac! The American military’s response is to hide the rest of the band members. Eventually the boys are actually rescued by the Afgan children, since although we are shown that they hate America, we are also told that they hate the Taleban more : an interesting aspect of the social and political commentary from this cartoon is that it is often quite educational in that sense too. It certainly makes you think about things.
We finally have a scene very much borrowed from Looney Tunes where an armed “Buggs” Laden as is chasing Cartman (shown as “Elmer Fudd”). While the other children are all creeping around we see that the Afgan children are basically clones of the South Park kids (another message there about how we are all the same the world over) and the American military appear in helicopter gunships with all weapons firing, killing both “Kennys”. This is clearly mocking themselves for the incidents in American battles of “friendly fire.”
Mr Hanky the Christmas Poo
This Mr Hanky episode is one of the more famous partly because of its disgusting main character and the fact that it really pushes the boundaries of taste to their limits.
According to a recorded interview I heard with the makers on the internet this episode originally started out as a South Park version of the Charlie Brown’s Christmas show where Linus comes out and does a speech – this was constantly re-run on American TV when they were children apparently. Also it was a comment about the separation of state and religion and all the worries about having nativities in school or not and the whole mess of political correctness gone mad as they saw it. They are aware of people who don’t want “jesus stuff” forced down their throats around Christmas time and even though they admit they are agnostics they say they get into the Christmas spirit themselves and saw this show as a way of saying to the audience that they should treat Christmas as a time to get together, have fun and “lighten up”.
It’s the second time we see Kyles mum rallying people together – apparently based on your “typical liberal mother who always has a problem with things”. One of the pair was Jewish so many of the experiences and details comes from his background.
The south park kids get excited about snow falling around although its already obvious to us its already on the ground everywhere. The first time we see tongues out of mouths in the cartoon.
Mr Hanky was a long standing idea they’d wanted to do since college days and indeed was being drawn as a “doodle” even before that. Before the show ran on tv they’d wanted to make a series called the Mr Hanky Show .. with the boys but centred around Mr Hanky. They pitched it to Brian Greydon who didn’t “want poo on the network” so they re-worked the idea. When they talked to Comedy Central they approved the idea of Mr Hanky in theory so that was a factor for going with them.
Right after this episode aired they were on the cover of Rolling Stone, building on “Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride” and really helped them make the big time. Motivation
It is a relief to know that Mr Hanky is in fact made of fudge – the smear marks he makes are actually the result of scanning in melted fudge and chocolate.
In this episode we see the targets being set on “pokemon” and including manga and anime on the way. The opening scene sees Cartman lapsing into a style of speech and animation characterised by rapid, breathless speaking with a strange sighing noise at the end of each sentence and his eyes become upside down smiles. You get the impression that the makers, Trey and Matt have watched Japanese cartoons with the same confusion the rest of us above the age of 12 feel and decided to make fun of it.
Character in Chimpokemon cartoon: “Someday I’ll find all the Chimpokemon and then fight the evil power that will revile itself when all the Chimpokemon are are collectable, haaaaaaaa?
The episode goes on to expose the cynical marketing strategy behind these cartoons and their merchandising, by using aggressive advertising campaigns to brain-wash children and exploit human’s desire to “collect” and also the peer pressure Kyle experiences “everyone else has one” which makes them want to buy the next version etc. Also the episode is laughing at the way kids manipulate their parents into buying things for them. In one such advert a Japanese person says “Collect all Chimpokemon and you will have happy things”. Whatever that means. Part of the humour in this episode is also aimed at how badly Japanese is often translated, the result in English often making absolutely no sense at all.
A theme in this episode also seems to be that the Japanese are trying to take over America through these marketing campaigns, and the toys include messages such as “Buy me” and “I love you” but more worryingly “Down with America!”
But even in the video game scene there is a reference to epilepsy induced by computer games and the ridiculously fast animations in that game seem to be trying to do just that, and of course poor Kenny has a seizure. The theme of the computer game of course is “bombing pearl harbour” which is in about as much taste as real computer games that come out of the US and seem to have no sensitivity for their worldwide audience.
As is typical in all South Park episodes there are all sorts of other digs at racism and credes, including poor Jewish Kyle who has none of these toys and is destined never to totally fit in, and the constant reference to small Japanese penises.
Proper condom use
This episode is an amusing comment about how things like sex education are often badly taught because of adults becoming flustered and worried about the whole issue and actually creating the problems. In this story the boys hear some sex ed stuff as a rumour from a 5th grader who had just been taught it When issues arise that shock the parents they back out of telling the kids about sex and pass the buck onto the school – another issue that’s constantly discussed in real society with frequent appearances from the Political Correctness brigade. Meanwhile the total innocence of the kids is the source of humour as they are totally clueless about the adult interpretation. The whole issue of who should do it and when ends up with the South Park PTA forcing the school to teach it in the 4th grade, and another reoccurring theme of south park is seen where the makers attack “mob rule” and how people and organisations shouldn’t give into people just because they have big mouths.
The situation becomes the usual farce when the girls refuse to have any contact with the boys because of “STDs” and in response some company jumps on the bandwagon and brings out a line of kiddy condoms, which leads to the usual over reaction in that now they should teach sex ed to the babies. The separation of boys and girls and the whole farce ends up with things turning into what is obviously meant to be “Mad Max” including a Mad Max style death for Kenny.