It didn’t occur to me until a short while ago that I still hadn’t written anything for Me Monday. I had a few ideas bouncing around in my head this morning when I was up super early for work. Seriously, I don’t know how you folks with full-time day jobs actually manage to consistently get up early in the morning. It’s no fun at all. It’s especially no fun after you’ve had a full, albeit fun, weekend. After officiating a wedding on Saturday and having folks from the Washington Metropolitan Gamer Symphony Orchestra over on Sunday for a game day, I’m feeling a bit drained. You know what’s great when you’re feeling drained? Cartoons.
You know what’s just great in general? Cartoons.
Lately, I’ve been on a DC Animated Universe kick. I’m currently having a “Superman” marathon in the middle of my “Batman: The Animated Series” marathon. They flow well together. Normally, I’d be mainlining Disney movies while exhausted since that’s about all my current attention span can manage, but the DC stuff is just so conveniently available for streaming and I don’t have to think about it. Isn’t technology wonderful?
I was doing some thinking about cartoons, their appeal, and what separates a “good” cartoon from a “meh” or just “bad” one. I think where we really have to start is with the realization that animation is not a medium solely designed for the entertainment of children. This is a belief that is incredibly prevalent in Western society. Eastern cultures, particularly Japan with its long history of anime, don’t seem to automatically associate animation with children. I mean, seriously, Japan is what gave us hentai. Hentai, for those who don’t know, is animated porn in the style of anime. If you want examples, wait until you’re in a place where you can safely internet.
Okay, let’s veer away from porn. I know, I’m sorry. The internet is for porn, but work with me here.
Now that we’ve established my opinion that cartoons aren’t just for kids, let’s talk about shows intended for kids. My love for animation started when I was small. I grew up watching “Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears,” “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” “X-Men,” and many more shows. There were many more that I didn’t get the chance to see, like “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Superman.” In fact, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I sat down and started watching all of them thanks to the internet. I was struck by a number of things not least of which was being impressed by how well they held up over time. They’re able to tell complex stories that teach valuable life lessons in 22-minute bursts.
This would be the part where many bloggers would go into hipster complaints about how shows these days aren’t as good as they once were. Also, the damn kids should get off of the proverbial lawn and all that jazz. There have been some great recent shows, like “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and, yes, “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.” I’ve been told that “Adventure Time” is amazing. I’ve yet to watch it. See, the problem isn’t the shows themselves. The problem is the business behind making shows. Back in the day, let’s take the 1980’s for example, shows were driven by the desire to sell tie-in merchandise, primarily toys. If they had a toy idea, they’d make a show for it and vice versa. It’s that mentality that is still driving the cartoon business. Unfortunately, this leads production companies to prioritize profits over quality. When that happens, we all lose.
If you make a good show or movie, people will want to buy merchandise associated with the show or film. Take Disney’s inability to keep Frozen merchandise on the shelves for example. It’s not just kids who want swag with their favorite characters on it. It’s adults too. Companies seem to have a laser-focus on products for kids that they forget how much money they could be making off of the adults too, but that’s a whole other story for another time. There are a lot of things I’d love to have but the sorts of items just aren’t there. Okay. Enough of me complaining about things I don’t even have money to buy anyway.
I mentioned earlier in this post about the things that separate good cartoons from the not-so-good. Here are some handy elements to keep in mind when you’re looking into making a great animated feature:
1) Art: Make something unique. Don’t become a carbon copy of something that’s been done before. Find your own visual aesthetic and just roll with it. Though “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Superman” have similar styles, their color palettes are vastly different. Batman is all about the night and the shadows. Everything feels dark, gritty, and dirty. Superman is brightness, chrome, and sunshine. Right off the bat you know that they’re different shows that are meant to tell different sorts of stories.
2) Story: Don’t be afraid to think out of the box. Don’t be afraid to tell more “mature” stories. I’m not saying to load up on sex and violence because there’s a time and a place for that. I’m talking about telling stories about emotional complexities. Put the characters into difficult situations and make it an actual challenge for them to get out of them. Raise the stakes. See, you can teach kids a lot more about the world than just showing them a black and white story of good vs. evil. They need to learn nuance someday and it’s okay to add shades of gray. Also, don’t be afraid to make people cry. Embrace the whole spectrum of emotional content. Remember, parents will love you if you make a show for their kids that they’ll enjoy too.
3) Voices: There are some fantastic voice actors in the business. Use them. I’d start naming names, but then this post would get super long. Don’t pick people because they’re celebrities or because they’re cheap. Pick good voices. Pick people who just are the characters they’re portraying. There’s a huge difference between someone just reading a script and someone giving an amazing vocal performance. Your animation can be top-notch, but if your voice actors aren’t up to the challenge, you’ve wasted all of that effort.
4) Diversity: Don’t make the same thing everyone else is making. Feel free to take risks. Tell the stories that no one else will touch. Give people all kinds of characters they can relate to. This is something that’s true for all forms of media, not just animation. The more variety in your stories, the more people will enjoy them. It’s true.
5) Fun: Just have fun with it. If you’re not having fun with the work, how can you expect your viewers to enjoy watching it?
I don’t have anything else to really go with right now. My brain’s still mushy, but cartoons are great. Hey, Superman just saved Lana Lang. How cool is that? He’s being all heroic and stuff. Why couldn’t he have been all awesome and heroic in Man of Steel?