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Cartoon Universe: Introduction

We all live in a cartoon universe.

Think about it – animation is almost omnipresent in our daily lives.  One of the nation’s largest media companies is, at its heart, an animation studio.  Japan’s image is now associated with its certain kind of animation.  And America’s most recognizable and admired man is not the president, but a yellow-skinned, four-fingered nuclear technician possessing the slowest of wits but the best of intentions.

It is not limited to 2 hour movies, 30 minute television programs, or 7 minute shorts; animated characters constantly appear in commercials.  While Fred Flintstone still hawks cereal, the pink-haired Esurance lady pushes car insurance, and Mr. Opportunity knocks to shill Honda cars each autumn.  They’re even corporate symbols – Bugs and Mickey aside, you’ve undoubtedly seen Geico’s gecko (the car insurance giant’s most visible mascot) or AMC’s Clip or Cinemark’s Front Row Joe introducing that chain’s features.  The local ABC station in Philadelphia has even anthropomorphized their 6ABC logo.

Those mascots are increasingly introducing films where, more and more, the line between animation and live-action is blurring.  Avatar, James Cameron’s magnum opus, is an animated feature.  While human performances may have been used as a base, Cameron’s Pandora was realized through stunning CGI animation.  This mixing is not limited to Cameron, nor Robert Zemeckis’ mixed efforts at motion capture – most major Hollywood blockbusters use some form of animation to create their world.

When new ways of delivery manifest themselves, cartoons are close to follow.  There is perhaps no better way to show off Blu-ray’s capabilities than plugging in the latest Pixar release.  When the Internet matured enough to allow it, Flash animation quickly became part of the tapestry of the Internet.  Family Guy’s success came through its DVD releases, and it is one of Hulu’s marquee offerings.  The revival of 3D in movie theatres has been embraced most visibly by the animation studios, which are cranking out nearly all of their new releases in compatible formats.

The people behind these animation efforts are often a creative and intriguing bunch.  John Lasseter’s infectious enthusiasm and fondness for Hawaiian shirts have contributed to his status as a beloved animation icon.  Haim Saban, a cutthroat Israeli businessman who parlayed his small production house into network ownership and eventually vast wealth, describes himself as a “cartoon schlepper”.  Andy Heyward, the former head of DiC, has a voicemail that welcomes callers to “Inspector Gadget’s personal command center”.  From Tex Avery and Chuck Jones to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, these personalities are one reason why cartoons are just so fun.

Animation has transcended its status as simply a programming genre.  It’s a medium, one that is no longer constrained to narrowly defined television shows and feature films, but a tool to create messages, identities, worlds.  It has become as inescapable as advertising.  From sunrise to sunset, cradle to grave, we are living in a cartoon universe.

And we’re about to explore it.

I’m Matthew Williams.  You may remember me from such long retrospectives as The End of Broadcast Kids TV and DVD and Digital Distribution.  I’ve been with toonzone since 2002, and I’ve been interested in cartoons since March 23, 1983; which, by sheer coincidence, happens to be my birthdate.  My interests have always lied in “the business”: the people, the companies, the machinery involved in creating the cartoons we cherish so much.  I’m not an artist, nor do I work in the business; I’m purely a fan, content to munch popcorn while watching from afar.

My interests lie mainly with western animation; I like anime, but I don’t go out of my way to actively seek it out.  I also tend to gravitate towards the more obscure shows, like The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians and Monster Force.  I also seem to be one of the few people with a high tolerance for Filmation.

Think of the cartoons themselves as not the subjects of this column, but the starting point from which the topics originate.  Instead of simply covering Batman: The Animated Series, I’m more likely to look at the general impact it made on action animation.  Instead of covering 80s cartoons specifically, I’ll touch on the environment in which they thrived – the fantastic, local syndicated lineups that made afternoons fun.  If I touch on a specific show, it’s either something you haven’t heard of before or something that needs to be seen in a different light.

My hope is that what I write will be entertaining, fun – and if you’re not careful, you may learn something before it’s done.

After all, it is a cartoon universe.  We just happen to live in it.

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