Understanding students can be quite a challenging task for any teacher. On one hand, how does a teacher grant the developing students the right amount of credit in their abilities to learn more advanced subjects and think critically? Another task is how do teachers encourage their students to learn about themselves as unique individuals? Based on my previous studies in early childhood education and how animation in children's shows can engage young viewers in new insights if well written, I feel that these are the two most important questions one would start asking when working with and taking time to understand children. I have mentioned in a previous post how children’s programming can cover such topics in an effective and creative manner. In this blog post, I will be reviewing and analyzing an episode of Arthur and Hey Arnold to answer the two questions I inquire at the start using the developmental theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. The episodes I will be covering are Arthur’s Substitute Teacher Trouble and New Teacher, starting with a synopsis of the episodes and where the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky play an important role.
In the Arthur episode, Arthur’s Substitute Teacher Trouble, Arthur and his best friend, Buster are lamenting how hard the work their teacher, Nigel Ratburn gives them and their fellow classmates. They are both seen exiting the school with a pile of books and papers, which appears to make their homework nights extremely daunting. Breaking a fourth wall, (which often takes place at the start of each episode of Arthur), Arthur turns to the viewer, describing the mountain of homework Mr. Ratburn gives them. He adds as an example how Mr. Ratburn must always make everything into a learning experience, even something as simple as a field trip to the zoo. Buster adds that sometimes he wishes their teacher would just disappear after tripping on a crack in the sidewalk.
The episode proceeds with Mr. Ratburn needing to take some time off due to a sore throat, unable to carry on with the class for the remainder of the day. The school principal, Mr. Haney informs the students their teacher will be absent and during his time off, they will have a substitute teacher. The students are then left wondering who will be filling in for Mr. Ratburn. Later, Mr. Haney informs them that Mr. Ratburn’s sister, Rodentia Ratburn will cover for him, much to the children’s’ dismay in concern that she might be harder a teacher than Mr. Ratburn. The next day, Rodentia introduces herself to the students and it turns out that her teaching style is a far cry from that of her brother’s. The approach she takes is incredibly basic for a 3rd grade level. The subject matters and materials she provides the children is too easy and unchallenging, e.g., reciting the 1x’s table, mixing of colors and narrating in a high-pitched voice while utilizing a puppet. Inevitably, the children find their given tasks boring and look forward to Mr. Ratburn’s return.
When Mr. Ratburn gets back to work, his students celebrate and welcome him back. Without hesitation, Mr. Ratburn begins the lesson of the day, the episode ending with Arthur and Buster delighted by how challenging the assignment is.
This episode adds a new insight into the relationship between Nigel Ratburn and his students. At first, the 3rd class complains that the amount of homework they are given is too difficult compared to what other 3rd grade students from other classrooms are given, (which had been mentioned before in a few episodes prior). Arthur and his friends look at Mrs. Sweetwater’s students and envy how easy going she is on them. It only takes a substitute teacher who fails to grasp how truly capable of learning challenging concepts and subjects that they start to appreciate Mr. Ratburn’s more challenging teaching style. The reason Mr. Ratburn appears to be so strict with the students regarding homework and their studies is because he gives students credit for their capabilities to learn more complex subjects, think critically and problem solve on their own. Those are the types of traits that demonstrate a tremendous sign of respect that a teacher has for their students. Rodentia Ratburn represents an example of a teacher lacking the skills to comprehend what type of curriculum is ideal for the 3rd grade level, which is the main contrast between her and her brother. To delve into more detail, here’s where Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development theory plays a role in this episode. Between the ages of 0-2 years, children learn to rely on their coordination senses via developing motor skills, which this stage is known as the Sensorimotor stage. The next stage of development is the Preoperational stage, which occurs between ages 2-7 years. During that time, children learn to think symbolically and expand their grammar to communication and describe concepts in full. They also rely on imagination as well as instinct despite their skills in abstract thought still being underdeveloped. Once the students are between the ages of 7-11 years old, the Concrete Operational stage involves thinking more critically and plausibly about concrete ideas as well as understanding in-depth conservation. Even so, the types of games children play together involve rules and problem solving. Last, but not least is the Formal Operations stage, which takes place at age 11 and onwards. By then, students can formulate abstract thought and think theoretically and hypothetically, building up on previous knowledge.
Given the ages of the main student characters in Arthur, eight to nine years old which places them in 3rd grade, their developmental level would be at the Concrete Operational stage. The way that their substitute teacher teaches and talks to the students falls into a strange mix between the later part of the Sensorimotor stage (age 2) and the Preoperational stage (up to 5 years), which is no surprise as the day goes on, the children start to feel disenchanted. Because these are subject matters they already know and understand, Mr. Ratburn’s class realize that the harder a challenge is, the more they can strengthen their skills and build up on previous ones. Perhaps the Brain’s remark “for goodness sake’s, we’re in 3rd grade, you know” to Rodentia Ratburn sums up the scenario best as well as his desire to run home to his computer in desperate need of a challenging activity.
The way that Lev Vygotsky’s theories play a role in this episode is how his theory of Zone of Proximal Development can be applied. To offer a belief overview of what the theory covers, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is represented in three circles ranking from large to medium to small. The largest circle represents what a child has yet to learn and struggles with doing on his/her own, which is outside the zone. The middle circle, which represents the zone itself, is where the instructors come in to help the child master the skill he/she is trying to learn. It covers what the child can do with help. The circle in the center of the previous ones, which is inside the zone, represents what the child already knows how to do on his/her own. As seen in Arthur's Substitute Teacher Trouble, the students already know all the basic material needed to progress in their skills, but find the more advanced material is too difficult. After Arthur and his classmates endure an entire day without challenging their current knowledge, they are delighted at the end when Mr. Ratburn assigns them advanced math problems and come to fully appreciate his teaching style. What is happening here is that when the students quietly proceed to work on the assignment, they are relying on what they already know. Although we don’t see how well the students perform on the assignment, this would be the time when they will know which areas they have the most hinderance and which areas highlight their forte. From there, it would be the teacher's job to pinpoint where the students need to go back and review upon grading their work, which we see many examples of Mr. Ratburn doing in other episodes.
In the episode of Hey Aronold, New Teacher, the students start their day with an announcement from Principal Wartz informing them that their teacher, Miss Slovak is retiring from teaching to pursue a career in golfing, which the students cheer. They are indifferent, however when they meet their new teacher, Robert Simmons, a good natured, charismatic, compassionate man who is excited to meet the class he will be teaching. Mr. Simmons is seen working with the students utilizing a unique teaching style in which he helps them embrace their own unique qualities. In addition to the curriculum, he even encourages the children to ask the “why” questions. This comes off as rather banal and trite at first, so the class begins to rebel in hopes of getting rid of Mr. Simmons. Once the revolt takes an emotional effect on Mr. Simmons, thus the students successfully eliminate him, the thoughtful and caring instructor is replaced by the ruthless and harsh Mr. Goose, formally known as Lieutenant Major Goose. As his former title implies, Mr. Goose’s teaching style is similar to that of drills that suit the army. It ends up taking a toll on the students’ wellbeing, making them realize how much Mr. Simmons genuinely cared and respected them as individuals. They remedy the situation by going over to Mr. Simmons’ house to apologize. Although he is skeptical at first, the students go out of their way to show they are truly remorseful. They even take the time to demonstrate their appreciation for him as a teacher and a person by taking the lessons he taught them so far and showing how he has helped them grow. Mr. Simmons is deeply moved by the students' display of kindness and wants to be their teacher again. Before Mr. Simmons officially returns, Arnold and his classmates challenge Mr. Goose with a bombardment of ‘why’ questions, causing the lieutenant intense anxiety and quitting the job. The episode ends with the entire class welcoming Mr. Simmons back and then spending a sunny afternoon on a field trip.
This episode of Hey Arnold shares some similarities to the episode of Arthur mentioned early on. Both Mr. Simmons and Mr. Ratburn have different teaching styles, yet both these characters are seen utilizing unique methods. What they also have in common is that they both encourage their students to think more critically than they normally would. Mr. Ratburn assigns tasks that advance his students' previous knowledge to the next level and Mr. Simmons encourages the 'why' questions, which are perhaps amongst the most important traits any teacher could have. At first, their students wish their situations were different because they do not see the benefits of the ways in which their teachers teach, but once they see the alternative, the latter encourages them to appreciate the former. Although Rodentia Ratburn and Mr. Goose are not the same personality wise, they both represent teaching methods that do a major disservice for child development, one being on the softer extreme of the spectrum and the other being on the rougher extreme.
The aspects in which Jean Piaget’s developmental theories can be applied to New Teacher from Hey Arnold would be to evaluate the third stage of cognitive development, Concrete Operational as brought up earlier. Because the main characters of Hey Arnold are around the same age as the ones from Arthur, Arthur’s class being in the third grade and Arnold’s class in the fourth, we see examples of where the students are put in positions where they cover concepts and apply them to concrete scenarios. At that age, aside from learning basic math as a foundation (academics), we see examples of how the children question their own thinking and evaluate their own ideas as well as understanding others. We also see that the characters from Hey Arnold learn how to deal with their everyday stress through critical thought and putting things in perspective. The reason Mr. Simmons’ teaching approaches surpass what an overtly strict teacher does is because the more anxiety inducing the learning environment becomes, the less the student is able to put things into perspective. Worse yet, the less the learning environment leaves little to no room for the student to examine their own thinking and that of others, the less critical their understanding becomes and thus their further development is stifled.
The way in which the theories of Lev Vygotsky can be highlighted in this episode is that the viewer sees that the students are already capable of thinking on a standard academic level. Before Mr. Simmons became Arnold and his classmates’ new teacher, the students already abide by the standard techniques taught by their previous teacher, Miss Slovak. After her departure, the role Mr. Simmons represents is one that genuinely respects the students’ capabilities as to how understanding themselves as individuals helps them academically and in life in general, that he goes out of his way to inspire and encourage them to reach their full potential. The circle outside the Zone of Proximal Development, (what the learner can’t do on his/her own), in this case would be that the students haven’t learned how to think more abstractly and outside the box, let alone ask themselves the ‘why’ questions. With Mr. Simmons’ assistance, the children learn how to develop this important and often sidelined skill. On a side note, Hey Arnold creator, Craig Bartlett stated in an interview why Miss Slovak was replaced. “She was too much of a caricature. That seemed a little bit too simple – it wasn’t smart enough. What if we put, instead, a great teacher who really cares about the students and is just full of passion?” Bottom-line is that Mr. Simmons is the type of character that best depicts how individual and critical thinking would be applied to Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the viewer sees examples as such when contrasting him to other teacher characters like Miss Slovak and Mr. Goose. Going back to Mr. Goose, we see he is too far to an extreme that he leave absolutely no room whatsoever for open discussion.
It’s seldom to see that many children’s programming cover a topic as what defines a good teacher who truly respects their students with regards to their capabilities and individuality. Even so, such qualities are hard to come by with real life teachers. The most important questions teachers might often ask themselves is are they giving the students enough credit for what they can do as independent thinkers and advance in their skill level and are they being respected and encouraged as individuals? Children’s programming such as Arthur (which is geared towards edutainment) and Hey Arnold have had writers on the shows who took the time to study the issues kids face and how they properly confront the situation through teamwork and problem solving. For this blog post, I just examined an episode from both these shows that best covered how a teacher demonstrated genuine respect for their students and describing how the child developmental theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky play a role. In the episode of Arthur, Arthur’s Teacher Trouble, the students feel that the homework their teacher, Nigel Ratburn gives them is too difficult and stressful. At first, they don’t realize how his teaching style benefits them in contrast to their fellow third grades from the other classrooms. Upon enduring an entire day with the unchallenging and over simplistic, Rodentia Ratburn, the students begin to appreciate Mr. Ratburn’s approaches and how it challenges their academic skills. The episode of Hey Arnold, New Teacher marks the introduction of Mr. Simmons, who has a unique way of teaching his students, which Arnold and his classmates fail to appreciate and understand how it advances their development. It took an overtly strict teacher for them to realize how being able to think critically and philosophically improves their well-being, a trait that their previous teacher lacked as well.
If more teachers take time to get to know their students' strengths and weaknesses in academics and in creative thinking, even so find ways to advocate for students to reach their full potential in both those areas, it will make a whole world of difference in a child's life. Students will garner more confidence in their capabilities and understanding themselves as individuals will even spark a greater desire to continue learning and growing.
I'm not the first one to say this, but this year in film has been quite, (to put it politely) peculiar. From the urban live-action/animated fantasy film noir, Detective Pikachu, based on the Pokémon game of the same name, to the direct-to-video SyFy horror adaption of The Banana Splits, it seems any type of adaption can easily get greenlit regardless of how absurd it can be. In a sense, these ideas are rather interesting solely for their weirdness. I don't expect any of them to age too well, but it's still fascinating to consider how this year for movies will be remembered years from now. However, as far as film adaptions of 2019 go, I think we can all agree that the one that left everyone the most perplexed is the upcoming live-action adaption of the 1981 Andrew-Lloyd Weber musical, Cats. Ever since it was announced in mid-July, the film has received a mostly negative reaction from spectators highlighting how uncanny valley it looks. From its bizarre blend of CGI and live-action, to its overall aesthetic and just the mere presentation of the characters along with the universe they inhabit, the look and feel of this movie leaves an unpleasant imprint on the viewers' visual senses.
You can view the trailer here and see for yourself how uneasy this film looks on the eyes. I can safely tell you, that 'unsettling' is a bit of an understatement. The movie is slated for release on December 20th, but it's already obvious why the aesthetic choices don't do these characters or the story any favors. First off, at the beginning of the trailer, we see two of the characters in the middle of the streets wandering about. At first glance, they look like humans emulating cat-like behaviors, which comes as no surprise as that's what the cast of the Broadway musical did, too, except in the next scene, the viewer gets a glimpse at how the characters are costumed. The shot introduces us to this version of Victoria (Francesca Hayward), but unlike the Broadway show, where the costumes look organically blended with the actors, the costumes look oddly intertwined with the actress's body. It doesn't look like a costume. The CGI effects make it so that the fur is part of a human body, rendering it (no pun intended) to look like a mutation between a person and a cat. The next shots showcased in the trailer don't get any better as it goes on. In the following scene, we see Victoria and Mr. Mistofflelees (Laurie Davidson) running to a gate to meet another cat, revealing what the rest of the cast of characters all look like. They all suffer from the same problem: The costumes look way too much mutations than cats! I think the designs of Macavity (Idris Elba), Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), Bustopher Jones (James Corden) and Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) to name a few of the more elaborate characters in their appearance add another layer of blurry confusion of where the costume, the CGI and the live actor begin and where they all end. By the way the rest of the cast is outfitted, the costumes appear more skin tight to the point it becomes difficult to discern what is what, which all those factors lead to an uncanny valley foul taste. In addition, the perspective is another aspect of the film that doesn't sit very well with audiences and with good reason. Given the fact that the characters look like a bad combination of both human and cat, the locations and sceneries where they interact are just way too strange and quite unsettling on account of how small everyone appears to be. To match the size of a cat, the actors are set in a way where everything looks relatively as big as it would to the eyes of a cat, but given the character designs, the perspectives come off as incredibly wonky, making it slightly nauseating to lay eyes on.
Admittedly, the soundtrack and vocal sound very promising, but unfortunately with all those factors ruining the overall appearance of the movie, I highly doubt very many music fans, much less die-hard Broadway buffs are going to be too enthused to obtain a copy either physical or digital. The movie in comparison to the Broadway show brings me back some fond memories (so to speak) of when I went to see the musical in 1999 as a pre-teen. I remember being impressed with the choreography, the songs and the layout of the streets the Jellicle cats (as they are referred to) would all gather in. I liked how the costumes naturally suited the performers and how the make-up was done that it presented the characters' personalities and traits so well. You also have to figure that while the premise of Cats is quite simple, there is a certain depth and meaning in the story that adds to its timeless quality like its source material by T. S. Eliot and why the film adaption is just going to end up being a product of its time.
That's actually not to say a film adaption of Cats can't come into fruition, that is, if done correctly. In fact there was an animated version planned. It has been confirmed that in the early-90's, Steven Spielberg's now-defunct company, Amblimation had an animated version in the works, but was scrapped upon the studio's closure. According to the catsmusical.fandom.com site, Spielberg "decided to set the show during the Blitz in London (1940-1941)" and veteran animators, Hans Bacher and Luc Desmarchelier posted some concept art on their blogs. Hans Bacher was responsible for the look and feel of the film and "spent a lot of time researching some rather 'unusual' London environments". Part of the task involved seeking the "trashiest spots [the team] could find" and scrolling down after a photograph of the creative team are some rough sketches and other related art by Bacher himself. In an additional post, Bacher writes about when he came on aboard with the rest of the team, which at the time they were a few months into the project. At the time, the idea was to blend miniature models with traditional animation. However, Steven Spielberg envisioned the animated world of Cats during the Blitz, so Bacher "started fresh with [his] designs" and thus began the research and reimagining of the film. Hans Bacher adds that in London, "behind all the sightseeing tourist area, there were 'backyards', a hidden world of trash and destruction" and that he "still [had] a map of '[his] real [L]ondon' where [he] marked this reference world". He adds that after 17 years, most likely, there's nothing left of the trash and war torn environment. (Mind you, he posted this on October 19th, 2008).
Luc Desmarchelier adds his various pieces of concept art to his own blog, which not only does he do an outstanding job of highlighting the vision for the film, but the audience gets a sense of how the cats themselves might have been animated. Character designers, Carlos Grangel and Nico Marlet worked various pieces consisting of how the characters would have been reimagined for the film and certainly, their art captured the personalities and traits associated with each of the prominent characters spot on! Old Deuteronomy looks as grand as one would have imagined an animated counter part of him. Grizabella looks just as worn down and shabby as she's portrayed in the musical, that the viewer instantly sees how past her prime she is. Macavity looks just as sinister as his musical depiction.
With the abundance of concept art and potential the film could have had, it's unfortunate it never came to be, but upon simply examining it, it's no surprise that it had more visual appeal to audiences than the 2019 film does. To this day, an animated adaption of Cats can still be a viable choice with the right art direction. The key is not only garnering an understanding of the stage show itself, but making the sceneries and character designs more organic. Put simply, the team behind the live-action film appears to understand the stage show very well, but the combination of CGI animation and live-action, coupled with the wonky perspectives is what throws the audience off. You may know the ropes of the source material and nail it perfectly in that regard as well as having a solid cast, but if the visuals don't mesh well, it fails to resonate with the audience the way it was intended to. Unfortunately, this is what happened with the live-action film. Had the audience gotten the planned animated movie by Steven Spielberg or something similar to it, then the reception would yield more positive results.
The concept created by Spielberg works in every possible way because it doesn't try to emulate the live performance the way the live-action film does. From what can be gathered about the production of the animated Cats movie, the environments the characters inhabit would have been far more appealing to look at for a variety of reasons. For one, the characters would have blended better with the perspectives more. At the time, 2D animation was still commonplace in the animation film industry and the trend in 1990's theatrical releases were mostly animated musicals, so designing the characters and sets best suited of a 2D setting is accessible. Once the environments are designed, deciding how the characters should look is easy to decipher. Knowing how a film looks gives the character designer an idea as to what type of character designs would be fitting for the environments created.
This brings us to the second reason why an animated movie would tip the Cats story in its favor. It's common knowledge that when designing a character, the final product should tell the viewer on a basic level who the character is and what their role might be based on visual cues. Putting it into action is easier said than done. Taking live actors from a stage show and deciding on what their animated counter parts should look like is a daunting task, one that requires multiple drawings as with any other animated project. In the case of Cats, it's a matter of understanding the characters and making sure the animated versions showcase those basic traits in their overall appearance. A major flaw of the live-action film is that it lacks showcasing character personality and/or leaves little room in the designs for audiences to get invested in the characters, which we'll compare and contrast in a moment.
Finally, it's the story itself. Cats the musical is a very simple story with a relatable moral. While we all get so caught up in things of glamour, those are things that fade over time and thus, will never bring true happiness. Grizabella, an aged cat, the best years of her life long passed, reminds the other Jellicle cats that in her iconic musical number, Memory. It was easy for them to reject her just because she's old and lost much of the charm of her youth, but if they welcome her back, they will remember never to take the best years of their own lives for granted and that the moment they are presently living in will someday be a memory just like her glory days. Simple stories with thought provoking themes don't need over complicated designs and sets to convey a narrative. Animation is a visual medium that if well written, drawn and directed, it can speak volumes to its viewers. The character designs and layouts of the animated Cats do what animated movies are often known to do: know the story and let the visuals tell it. Both story and visuals should go hand-in-hand and what Spielberg had in mind conveyed this spot on! This applies to any visual piece, especially if it's an adaption of a pre-existing stage show, so these creative decisions are very important to take into account.
The character designs in the live-action lack what this animation could have been because there seems to be less focus on who the characters are and more on trying to create impressive visuals while trying to look like the stage show. This doesn't work because on one hand, these designs fail to resonate with the viewer. If your interest is geared towards taking advantage of modern technologies and less on letting your characters tell a story visually, that is a fundamental flaw in which will prompt your audience to be less engage and rather more perplexed. As stated before, the character designs in the live-action film blurs the line between CGI and the costumed character. This could easily work if there was a proper balance of CGI, live actor/actress and costume (rotoscoping, maybe?), but in this case, it's clear the emphasis was geared towards visual appearance a little too much. The designs became over saturated with CGI and live action, thus creating an uncanny valley mess with little to no focus on designing a character that says who he or she is at first glance. Surely you can spend so much time on CGI in hopes it will match up to the quality of what you hope to achieve, but if your end result is being discussed less about who the characters are and their story and more about how their design is unsettling, your intent to grab the audiences' attention becomes futile. Viewers complained about the character designs in the live-action Cats for that reason. Pair that with the perspectives of their environment and that just adds to the problem. Making visuals too overcomplicated when they don't need to be doesn't encourage audiences to be invested in a story. Sometimes it can easily drive people away or be less invested in the story because there's something too distracting about the visuals. The animated movie on the other hand makes use of the simplicity of Cats by coming up with a specific idea of what their world would look like and how to properly fashion the characters. All of those factors are important to take into account because at the end of the day, each component will be a major factor in what draws people into the story, relate to the characters and (in the case of Cats being a musical), get into the soundtrack.
The main question I had going into this post was if Cats could ever have a more effective retelling and if so, what would have been better suited for it than the live-action film?. In order to answer that, it just takes a specific understanding why the live-action film fails on so many fronts, understanding what worked for the stage performance and how the scrapped animated movie demonstrated a more ideal alternative. Aside from its musical numbers, the show relies so much on character and setting. While visuals are important, they go hand-in-hand with the characters and their environment. If making a live-action film was of the interest of the directors, it would have made more sense to focus on choosing CGI animation over live actors or rotoscoping than trying too hard to blend the two. The reason the canceled 1997 project would have done the story and characters of Cats justice was because the environments and character designs were carefully taken into consideration in regards to story. With the right combinations and less emphasis on just visuals, the goal shouldn't be trying to be the stage performance of Cats, but let it be its own thing. It's an adaption of an iconic musical, but it should be created to stand on its own. By doing so, this is how the final product resonates with audiences. With each and every puzzle piece put together to create a visual motion picture that best fits the tone and ambiance of the story, you'd be bound to latch onto the audience's attention for the right reasons. This is true with any animation or visual medium for that matter. In an era where CGI has become prevalent in both animation and live-action, it's no surprise Hollywood easily abuses it at times to a saturation point, causing the quality of movies to suffer a great deal. If studios begin to return to their roots where their focus is equally attentive to story and art direction as seen with the potential Steven Spielberg's version of Cats would have been, think of countless possibilities that could come of musical films and other forms of animation and live-action.
Normally, I don't use my blog for news related stories, but as a fan of animation, especially Anime, I wanted to address what happened in Kyoto this month and the major toll it has had on the victims and their families as well as the Anime community. On July 18th, Kyoto Animation, best known for their films, and series, Eiga K-On!, Lucky Star, Tamako Love Story and A Silent Voice endured an arson attack at their studio one facility, leaving at least 34 to 35 dead, and roughly 33 injured.
I was away on vacation when it happened. I heard a piece of the story in passing, but did not gather further information until I got back and settled down from my trip. I got back on Sunday last week and started following up on the story on Wednesday night. From my understanding, the suspect involved did this out of spite, claiming that someone in the studio or the studio stole his idea. He threatened the studio, doused the place and some of the employees with gasoline and set everything on fire.
This is a very tragic news story. Waking up one morning to go to work like any other normal day, it would never cross one's mind to suspect something so horrible like this would happen. Anime merchandising company, Sentai Filmworks, one of Kyoto Animation's partners, started a GoFundMe page with the social media hashtag, #HelpKyoAniHeal to help the victims and their families rebuild. The fundraiser has surpassed its goal and is still going strong. I'll leave a link below where you can donate. Please keep the victims and their families in your thoughts and prayers at this time of need.
Help KyoAni Heal donation page
Rugrats in Retrospect: A Response to Saberspark's Video 'What RUINED Rugrats - The Untold Drama' and Why Paul Germain was Spot on about Good StorytellingRead Now
In the 1990's, animation was starting to evolve from toy commercial centric cartoons like Care Bears and My Little Pony to creator driven content as seen with Nickelodeon's hit shows of the time like Doug, Rocko's Modern Life and Nick's then pop cultural phenomenon, Rugrats. At the start of the decade, media and technology entrepreneur, Geraldine Laybourne served as Nickelodeon's first president from 1984 to 1996. She and the rest of the team set out to make Nickelodeon the first network for kids with their unique line-up of shows that were original creator content in order to differentiate themselves from other networks during those years. At the beginning, Doug, The Ren and Stimpy Show and Rugrats were the first three animated shows to be greenlit into production. Of the three, Rugrats would go on to be Nickelodeon's biggest hit, paving the way for the network's upcoming animated shows like Rocko's Modern Life, Angry Beavers and Hey Arnold!. More to the point, Rugrats became the face of Nickelodeon throughout most of the '90's, but then in the latter part of the decade and the start of the 2000's, its popularity gradually began to die down, eventually being eclipsed by Sponge Bob Square Pants.
There is a very specific reason as to why that happened. However, contrary to popular belief, the decline in popularity for Rugrats wasn't so much for the addition of new characters, though, there is some merit to that assumption. The real problem that caused this series to lose its momentum, as seen in Saberspark's video, What RUINED Rugrats? - The Untold Drama, had everything to do with the show creators failing to see eye to eye. The show was created by then married couple, Arlene Klasky and Gabor Cspuo along with fellow co-worker, Paul Germain. In this blog post, I'm not going to delve too much into the notorious drama that went on amongst the writers. I'm just going to pin point the main source of it. Rather, I'm going to discuss my thoughts on the situation from the perspective of an aspiring writer and early childhood teacher. Using my animation and illustration background as well as my experience so far working with children, I will explain with an in-depth analysis on why I favor Mr. Germain's side of the story.
For starters, before Rugrats made its debut, the trio worked on a few episodes of The Simpsons shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show from 1987 to 1989 before it made its debut as a television series itself on December 17th, 1989. The Klasky-Csupo team worked on this series during the first three seasons. The Simpsons, which was created by Matt Groening, has been a pop cultural icon for nearly three decades now, and is still going strong to this day, making it the longest running American animated sitcom in history. As we know, the show deals with the titular dysfunctional family and their interactions and responses toward American culture. As simple a concept that may be, what contributes a great deal to the success of The Simpsons is character development and stories that explore the human condition by going into the characters' minds and challenges. Having previously worked on the show, Paul Germain knew that the key to making a top tier animated series was quality storytelling, so his level of expertise would bode well for him in the long run. (I know The Simpsons did suffer a bit in quality over the years, but that's another topic for another day).
When pitching a show for Nickelodeon, Arlene Klasky created the concept for Rugrats with one basic idea in mind that made it truly memorable: "if babies could talk, what would they say?" Having been pregnant during the show's conception, making this a very personal show that was important to her, she had Paul Germain help her elaborate on the idea. Inevitably, Nickelodeon greenlighted production on the series and a total of sixty-five episodes would be in the contract. Rugrats debuted in the summer of 1991. Due to solid promotion, its success and viewership increased immensely. From films, to merchandise, and even a giant parade balloon making its debut in the 1997 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, there was no denying Rugrats became the crown jewel for Nickelodeon. Unfortunately, as Saberspark pointed out, the events building up towards the show's success was ultimately what lead the show to crumble. There were several feuds between Klasky and Germain that would often put Csupo in the middle as the swing voter between the two.
Long story short, Arlene Klasky favored the idea of the baby characters acting more like their age rather than see them acting on adult-like behaviors as seen in the 1992 episode, The Trial in which the babies have a courtroom setup after one of the children destroys Tommy's favorite lamp. Paul Germain was all for writing plot driven narratives with solid character development like that of The Simpsons, but for kids. To make this disconnect between the show creators worse, it was the introduction of Angelica that increased conflict between Klasky and Germain. Germain created Angelica, feeling that the show having an antagonist would tip the scales in its favor. Klasky, having not created the character, strongly disliked Angelica and often complained about her portrayal being too cruel towards the younger children. Inspired by a childhood bully, Germain wanted to explore Angelica's character and craft character driven plots examining why some kids who bully other kids behave the way they do. After Paul Germain's departure in the mid-1990's along with other members of the writing staff, the quality of the writing began to shift. Although that was the time Rugrats skyrocketed in success, a few years later, it began to fizzle and eventually the show ended in 2004. Given all that was happening behind the scenes with this show and in regards to good writing and how children learn and develop through cooperative and explorative play, Paul Germain was definitely on-point when it came to what would have been best for this kind of series.
First of all, since Rugrats is a cartoon about children from ages one to three and a half years old, it should delve into topics that focus on the inner workings of early childhood development. The key ingredient that goes into good writing is having a deep understanding of your subject matter and drawing even more inspiration from the real world. It could be from personal experience, people you know or some new insights you've garnered working with others. All of those elements are vital to good storytelling, if not an important foundation for it. Arlene Klasky was right about one thing. When coming up with an idea for a story, it's a good idea to write something that is personal to you, but her unwillingness to listen to her peers left almost no room for personal growth. Good ideas become stronger when you garner deeper understandings of what you're writing about. If Klasky wanted to make a show that was about babies exploring the world around them, she'd be wiser to take those concepts into account. With Paul Germain's approach to writing, he was willing to add and explore those aspects of early childhood development blended with personal experiences and incorporate them into the plots. For example, when the children mimic adult behaviors, that's a prime example in early childhood development with children letting themselves think freely in a risk-free environment. What contributes to children's growth is their freedom to explore certain attributes of adult behaviors and thus, begin to learn about themselves and how the world works. As is the case with The Trial episode, the babies have a courtroom setting in the living room because they have already seen and know that adults attend jury duty. They are somewhat familiar with how that process works. Certainly they may not understand every little detail that there is to know, but at an early age, children observe adults on one side of a testimony and others representing the other perspective in order to determine who might be guilty and who might be innocent.
To add to this, from my experience so far working with preschoolers and what I've been studying, I've seen how children play certain games like house, kitchen, or store. Social referencing is something that occurs in infants between six to nine months, which is when babies observe how their caregivers react to certain situations and use that as a model for the appropriate response. Preschoolers already know this social cue from their infancy and build up from it. In terms of childhood development theories, Lev Vygotsky theorized that social interaction among other children is what adds to the child making meaning and gaining new knowledge. He also believed that, unlike Jean Piaget, who categorized childhood development in four stages, children's development is continuous and occurs through cooperative learning. Children, thus learn from each other. Jerome Bruner's Three Modes of Representation observes that children continuously and actively learn by adding on previous knowledge. Enactive, which is based inaction occurs during the early years. Iconic, which is image based, occurs during the mid-childhood years. Symbolic, which is rooted in language, takes place during adolescence. Applying this to The Trail, we see these examples playing out in the episode. We see that the children in the cartoon already understand why adults resolve disputes in a courtroom, so there is a bit of social referencing displayed as the babies are seen referencing adult behaviors to respond to their situation. The way that the Lev Vygotsky theory is depicted, the children are interacting with one another and thus, through this type of play, they are learning through cooperation and making meaning in order to find out who broke the lamp. The way that Bruner's theory plays a role is that at the age that the Rugrats characters are, they are learning through action or Enactive imagery and that is knowledge that gets built on with new knowledge over time.
That being said, drawing from real-life examples and knowledge of how children develop are important elements that contribute to good writing. The topic or subject matter you are writing about may be personal to you, but if you don't take the time to build up a deeper understanding from other perspectives and real-life observations, your concept may still be good on paper, but stale in representation. This also leads me to another reason why Germain's approach to storytelling excels over Klasky's, one that should always be at the forefront when crafting a story: who is your target audience? This question may already be a matter of common sense, but its one that seems to get a bit lost as new writers join a team on a show or other type of creative project. As mentioned earlier, Paul Germain envisioned Rugrats being The Simpsons of children's television. What he meant was that the target demographic for Rugrats could appeal to not only children, but adults as well. Just because of the age of the main characters, it shouldn't imply that there can't be stories written in a way that would resonate with older audiences as well. From the sound of the debates between Arlene Klasky and Paul Germain, it was obvious that Klasky failed to understand her audience, much less ever listen to why Germain's writing team was on point. Klasky felt that if they were to make a show about babies, it automatically meant that the main characters should consistently do what babies do. However, there is a major flaw in this thought process: aside from it leaving very little room for character development, it leaves very little room certain topics to be covered, rendering the show's content too stale.
The main problem I see with Klasky's approach as to what she thought was right for Rugrats is that she wanted to play the show too safe. Audiences eventually get bored of that. They can easily tell when writers are taking creative risks and when they are selling themselves short. By having the main characters constantly act their ages, not only are there limitations on story and character growth, but it fails to resonate with audiences. If Rugrats was intended to be a show both kids and adults could relate to, this approach was absolutely not the ideal choice for that demographic. You can't just have one foot in the door for a certain age group and the other one stepping out for another. A good kids show written for both kids and adults in mind should always be an open space for writers to be adventurous and explorative when it comes to dealing with new ideas. Plus this is the type of audience that wants to see something beyond the comfort level. There have been episodes of Rugrats, like the PBS Kids edutainment show, Arthur, where difficult topics were covered, such as neglect, loss of a pet or family member, jealousy, generational differences and of course, child growth and developmental milestones. There have even been episodes that deal with fears adults struggle with and new experiences that come with each stage in life. Even most impressive was that there have been holiday specials that focus on Hanukah and Passover and their religious significance, something that not very many shows at the time were covering. Being open to topics like these make room for both kids and adults to have a dialogue with one another. Because early childhood development is the seed that shapes how we grow up as our earliest experiences shape us, our perception of others and the world around us, it makes more sense that character driven plots were the best way to construct an episode of a show like Rugrats. Playing it safe with very little for the characters to do eventually alienates viewers and thus, that is why Paul Germain had the right idea all along. Even so, when it came to Angelica, her role wasn't solely to be a one-dimensional bully as mentioned earlier, but rather to represent a figure of the type of kid everyone has to deal with at times. As children grow up, they will always encounter a bully. Contrary to some of the stereotypes portraying bully characters over the years prior to Rugrats and other shows afterwards, there are underlying reasons why some children lash out the way they do. Over simplifying or dodging the subject altogether is not only playing storytelling safely, but it's also denying the reality of the world we live in. (I would like to delve into the topic of bully/brat characters in kids shows in a separate blog post sometime because I think it's a topic deserving of its own post).
With all that has been said and done and how well Rugrats aged as a pop cultural icon, in the end, it was Paul Germain's values as a storyteller that made it stand the test of time. With all due respect to Arlene Klasky, who undeniably had a brilliant idea for a television show, her concepts sounded good on paper, but Germain had ideas to help take her concept up another step further. It was unfortunate that Klasky and Germain failed to find common ground, but one can't deny that it's one thing to have a good idea on your hands. It's a whole world of difference to build up on it. Going off of Klasky's approach, there would have left very little room for character development and growth due to limitations on plotlines as was the case with the later seasons. Germain had all the right pieces in mind that fit into crafting good stories that would resonate with the show's respective audience. With an understanding of real world examples, such as studies related to the subject matter that the series centers around and personal experiences along with comprehending who the show is for, those are all important factors that contributes to both a show's quality and increased level of success in the long run. Stories can teach us about our struggles and shed them in a different light when delved into correctly, inspiring viewers to ask themselves the right questions and reflect on their own situations. By playing it safe and shunning other suggestions to further improve your concept as well as knowing less about who your target audience is, you not only put limitations on the potential of your ideas, but also on yourself as a writer. The more explorative you become with your concept and how it relates to the real world along with knowing what kind of stories your audiences are hoping to see, the better rounded you become as a creator. Your concept will grow and flourish, reaching its full potential. As with any creative medium, it will always be a continuing process that no one ever stops learning from because our experiences never stop shaping us and endless knowledge is always being spread around. You yourself will never stop learning. It's either you're open to it or you just stick to what is already familiar to you. By the latter, you will have many missed opportunities. By the former, you will constantly be exposed to them and those new opportunities and insights are what you give your audiences in return.
Marc Brown, who is known primarily as the author of the Arthur children's books series, is a three-time Emmy award winner behind the PBS Kids TV series of the same name. Born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania along with his three sisters, he grew up listening to his Grandma Thora's stories, which eventually inspired him to come up with and write his own stories as he got older. Aside from sparking his interest in writing, Thora also sparked his interest in drawing. Marc began using watercolors in high school after his teacher introduced him to the medium, which he continues to use in most of his illustrative works. Among his influences are Cubist artist Marc Chagall and fellow children's book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak of the Where the Wild Things Are fame. Marc majored in graphic design at the Cleveland Institute of Art after receiving help from Grandma Thora. Since then, Marc Brown pursued children's books even while taking up other jobs before pursuing the career path officially.
To this day, Arthur continues to air, becoming the longest running children's animated series in the United States and the second longest running animated show behind The Simpsons. The television series made its debut on October 7th, 1996, two decades after the first Arthur book, Arthur's Nose was published. Both the books and the television series center around the everyday life and challenges of the titular character, who is an 8-year old anthropomorphic aardvark, his friends and family. The topics of the books deal with issues and challenges children face such as trying new things, first days of school, effort and success and working together with peers. In the television series, there are episodes that cover difficult issues families struggle with such as autism, cancer, dyslexia, Alzheimer's, death of a pet, Asperger's syndrome and coping after a devastating event.
I had the pleasure of meeting Marc Brown back in 2014 at a talk he was giving at the Boston Public Library. The lecture was a part of the Gateway to Reading Lowell Lecture Series. Marc discussed what inspired him to become a children's book author as well as his creative process, how the people he went to school with when he was in third grade and family members inspired the characters in the Arthur books, other books he was working on and other authors he worked with. When on the topic of how Arthur became a TV show, he cited the late Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers' Neighborhood) as his main influence. PBS wanted to make a television show based on the Arthur books as a means to encourage children to read. Marc recalls "what PBS wanted to do with Arthur was to make more kids want to read by watching television. I thought that was a wonderful use of both animation and TV. And the best role model was my buddy Fred Rogers, who I think used television in such helpful ways to kids and families. I miss him a lot." Marc then goes on to show the audience some clips from the animated series. "We did a lot of shows, things that you couldn't do in a picture book as well. Like a lot of families, including ours have dealt with the problem of Alzheimer's and Arthur's having some problems with his Grandpa." The first clip shown is from the episode, Grandpa Dave's Memory Album, featuring late comedian and actress Joan Rivers in a special guest appearance followed by another clip from the episode, The Great MacGrady, which dealt with the topic of cancer. Marc then goes on to show more clips from the animated series featuring other guest appearances including Larry King, Matt Damon, Neil Gaiman, Ming Tsai the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mike Fincke, Michelle Kwan, the late Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal, Frank Gehry, Yo-Yo and of course, Fred Rogers. After the montage of clips, Marc talks about his experiences meeting four presidents after writing the book, Arthur Meets the President and shares some fun and humorous anecdotes from his travels. He then talks about a book he illustrated, titled Wild About Books, written by fellow children's book author, Judy Sierra. The writing style in Wild About Books pays homage to Dr. Seuss, who is known for famous titles such as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and The Lorax. Marc shows the audience his illustrations as he narrates the book and concludes the lecture by saying "if I ran the zoo, all the teachers would make more money than movie stars because what they do is a lot more important. Think about that".
After the lecture, there is the question time taking place, starting with the kids and then the rest of the audience. When my turn comes up, (timestamp 48:16), I ask about how does the team go about the difficult topics covered in the show. Marc's response goes as follows:
"Well, I'm glad that you are interested in that because...it's kind of a detail that a lot of people don't know about. Because we deal with so many issues that are difficult, most people don't want to deal with those [topics] with kids. We have a wonderful advisory group and we go to people who are specialists in those fields. We talked with a lot of people who know about cancer and they know about families..., dealing with that and how to be helpful, what we should put in the show, what we shouldn't put in, what's age-appropriate. So it's...our advisors who really helped us a lot and as I was saying very quickly when I showed you that little reel about our guest stars, Matt Damon's mom who teaches at Lesley is one of our advisors and she's really good as they all are. And we have great young writers! They...will get together once a year and we'll make a list of things that might make good show shows and...one day I said 'desk wars'! And they wrote a whole story about kids and their desks and classroom and the wars that they were having with... each other...or head lice! Who's going to deal with head lice? We are!"
The next question is from a little girl who asks if any of his books have been adapted in braille because her mother is blind, to which Marc replies that "there are quite a few Arthur books that are in Braille. I was working directly with the Perkins School". At the 52:49 timestamp, Kathy Brodsky, a clinical social worker who also writes children's books herself comments on the work Marc and his wife, Laurene Krasny Brown did on Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families and When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death, commenting that she has used the books "for people of all different ages and they've been terrific". Marc turns everyone's attention towards Laurene for a round of applause and describes how she went about writing those stories. "Laurene worked at...Harvard with the brilliant Howard Gardner for many years in project zero and did a lot of research of children and media. And she's so good at taking those hard issues and...getting the right questions for families to talk about". The last question is from a little boy, who asks Marc what inspired him to make Arthur into a TV show to which he responds "well, like I said, I wanted kids to read and I wanted kids to go to the library and pick out more books. And Arthur is all about reading... [W]hen he has difficult things in his life, one of the first things he does is go to the library to try to learn about it". After Marc thanks everyone for coming and supporting his work, there is also a book signing taking place.
I purchased a copy of In New York at the book signing. When I get to Marc's table, I briefly introduce myself and tell him what I'm studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (animation at the time). I then expressed my interest in writing and illustrating my own original stories and characters, so I asked his advice for aspiring writers. Marc's response was very simple: just keep writing and exploring. You just need to find what is inspiring to you and keep practicing the skills. If you have a great idea you want to write about and it's important to you, keep working on developing the story and character you've been working on.
Of all the advice I received that year in regards to getting started with creative ideas, this was one of the strongest and it stuck with me ever since. Sometimes it's easy to get so caught up in the little details about how people get into writing a book (or any other form of media for that matter), but what they often forget that it's the craft that goes into writing and illustrating the final product people value most. The time and effort put into a project and the quality of writing is what resonates with your audience in the end. If you can write good, enriching stories and characters that resonate with the reader, you are on the right path. In the case of writing children's books, it's important to learn about your age group, what your topic is, do the research, seek good help and information from others who specialize in the topic to decipher what is an age appropriate way to tell the story, develop the idea and most of all, you will never stop learning.
Disney has been a staple in animated films for eighty years since its release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and continues to enlighten children and adults with their clever storytelling, memorable characters and of course, timeless tales through the art of animation. Walt Disney, the man himself behind the famous company name once reminded us “that it was all started by a mouse”, which made its debut in 1928 in the short film Steamboat Willie. From the early days of Mickey Mouse in short films to full-length animated features like Snow White, Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950) and Lady and the Tramp (1955), Walt Disney and his creative team continuously pushed the boundaries of the art form, capturing realism and life for their characters and the world they inhabit by using techniques such as the multi-plane camera, cel animation and (when it would be effective), rotoscoping. Until his death in 1966, Walt Disney had spent his career, adding to his creative and innovative repertoire. With live action films, theme parks and animatronics also a part of his company’s innovative collection, no one can doubt if Walt Disney was alive today he would be welcoming of 3D (CGI) animation as well and thus, be ready and willing to explore is creative potential. In fact upon the debut of Pixar’s first full-length CGI animated feature, Toy Story in 1995, which the Disney company distributed, Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney said so himself that his uncle would loved the film.
Given the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ success in the 1990’s during the Renaissance era to its decline in the early 2000’s and downsizing throughout the entire decade to its resurgence in the 2010’s, one might be wondering, will Disney ever create a new film using traditional animation? Perhaps the best way to answer that is to evaluate what happened in the 2000’s and what the company is experimenting with nowadays.
Surely it would seem that with the success of Pixar, today's popular releases like Frozen (2013) and Big Hero 6 (2014) and the decline of Disney in the 2000’s, it does seem that hand drawn animation would be a thing of the past. As Pixar released hit after hit with Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004), Disney would have a few successes like Lilo and Stitch (2002), but suffered major failures with Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002) and Home on the Range (2004). The following year, Disney released its first CGI animated feature, Chicken Little, which was a financial success, but was completely out of favor with critics for its notorious lackluster story and dislikable characters. Throughout the remainder of the decade, Disney released three more animated features, two of which were CGI, Meet the Robinsons (2007) and Bolt (2008) and a 2D feature, The Princess and the Frog (2009). Meet the Robinsons was not as successful as Bolt and while The Princess and the Frog was a box office success, it failed to exceed expectations for two reasons. One of which was as current president of Disney and Pixar, Ed Catmull indicated in his and the late Amy Wallace’s book, Creativity Inc, Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration that the “marketing folks warned us: Having the word princess in the title would lead moviegoers to think that the film was for girls only” (Catmull, Wallace p. 268) and that there was also the issue that it was released five days prior to James Cameron’s Avatar. Another set back, which was highlighted by Pixar and Disney’s current chief creative officer, John Lasseter in an article by Variety, he stated that “[he] was determined to bring back [hand-drawn animation] because [he] felt it was such a heritage of the Disney studio” and that after delving into details via research, the results revealed that the film “was viewed as old-fashioned by the audience”.
In an article by Mitchell Stein on The Mickey Mindset Blog, entitled Will Disney Ever Return to Making Hand-Drawn Animated Films?, there is mention of how The Princess and the Frog and the 2011 Winnie the Pooh both failed to compete with other film releases and financially fell short of expectations. Stein goes on to further explain that after Moana, although Disney has no 2D animated films announced in the years to come, he reminds readers that “traditional 2D animation still continues to live on in different forms at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in unexpected forms. In recent years, Disney has found ways to blend unique styles of animation between CG and hand drawn 2D to create stunning results”. He discusses the Academy Award winning 2012 short, Paperman, which made its debut alongside Disney’s 52nd feature animated film, Wreck-It Ralph and pinpoints that Disney “blended the use of traditional animated over CG-rendered work. The result is both stunning and immersive, showcasing Disney’s ability to push innovation and creativity to unexplored frontiers”. (To learn more about the making of Paperman, the film’s director, John Kahrs discusses his process in an article by fxguide, which you can find here).
In addition to Paperman, other short films such as Feast (2014) and Inner Workings (2016) were also created with this technique. Even so, Moana, which is mostly CGI animated, there are also a few aspects that are animated in 2D, such as the opening and the tattoo character, Mini Maui. According to an article entitled Disney’s Oscar-Winning Software Brought ‘Moana’ to Life, But Could a Full Length Movie Be Coming Soon? by Sam Cooper on Movie Pilot, Disney is creating these new animated techniques via Meander, a program that juxtaposes 3D and 2D and delves a bit into how it works. To put it simply, Cooper highlights in bold letters that the program “takes the first layer—a moving, multidimensional image—and allows it to drag the lines of the second layer along with it, filling in the gaps of the hand drawings and letting the hard lines take the spotlight”.
With Disney continuing to innovate as they have always done over the past 80 years, possibilities are as endless today as they have always been in the past. The company has no doubt, had its ups and downs as, especially after Walt Disney's death. It can be a major challenge for a company to adopt a similar mindset as its founder, an example seen in recent years with Apple, Inc following Steve Job’s death, but once a company understands what made their past projects great, they are able to display that same craftsmanship and spirit as the company’s pioneer. The studio was able to bounce back in the 1990’s with the Renaissance era by adopting new innovative approaches to storytelling while retaining the spirit of the classics that made Disney famous and are doing it again in the 2010’s. Innovation in both animation and narrative are the reason the company continues flourish and therefore, 2D animation is not a thing of the past. It’s simply evolving with the times. Disney appears to be exploring new techniques so that the art form would continue to be fresh and new rather than look like they are trying to recreate the past. This is actually no different than the early days of Pixar, experimenting with CGI short films before Toy Story’s debut or how Walt Disney himself experimented with new techniques by starting small and then building up. What is important to note is that Disney, like every other company built around innovation is constantly evolving and failure occurs in the process, not because of the art style, but because of the timing of their releases, how they go about marketing and of course, lack of innovation in the animation techniques. That being said, Disney can make a successful new 2D animated feature through innovation in their animation techniques and retaining their classic spirit without trying to blatantly repeat what they had already done before.
Part 1 of this series of blog posts delved into the early origins of anime, which date back to 1907. The post covered examples of various Japanese animated works prior to World War II. Japan, by contrast to other countries did not have much access to better resources like celluloids, thus their animations were made using cut outs. As the years went on and access to new materials were increasing, various animators adopted the filming techniques of the West, as seen in later animations. Part II covered the effect and influence WWII had on the Japanese animation industry, thus came the propaganda films of the time and how the industry recovered after the war in 1948. With the release of Tōei Animation’s 1958 classic animated feature film, Hakujaden, the industry continued to flourish throughout the 1960’s and onward. In this third and final post in this series, the rise of television animation in Japan and the everlasting influence of Osamu Tezuka’s beloved classic, Mighty Atom/Astro Boy will be discussed.
As previously stated, the 1960’s was a pivotal decade for Japanese animation, not only because it was the decade when Japan’s animated works made their way onto television, but it was also the decade that would start to give the industry its identity. The first televised Japanese animation was Instant History (Otogi Manga Calendar), which ran from 1961 to 1962. Although the series remains lost to this day due to the tapes the show was recorded on being repurposed because of the cost to preserve them, there is one image documenting its existence. The art style resembles that of a Hanna-Barbera or a UPA cartoon than that of what the later years would have in store for the industry, especially the year 1963 with the television debut of Osamu Tezuka’s international hit, Astro Boy.
Making its debut on January 1st, 1963 with its pilot episode, Atomu tanjo (The Birth of Atom or The Birth of Astro Boy in the U.S.), the animated adaption of Tezuka’s popular manga series would be the spark that would forever define the Japanese animation industry and give it its own identity. To completely grasp why Astro Boy is often understood as the ‘first anime’, it’s important to trace back to Tezuka’s life before and after WWII, how Astro Boy was initially conceived (as Tetsuwan Atomu or Mighty Atom) and the events that occurred after Astro Boy’s television debut in the United States.
Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) was known for his immense passion, dedication and hard work. Exposed to the arts at an early age, Tezuka had a huge love for film and animation. He started writing and drawing his first original stories at age 13. As he worked on manga, he went to school to study medicine. During the second World War, like all other artists in Japan at the time, his work was reduced to creating propaganda pieces, thus he continued to retain his artistic value in secrecy. After WWII and witnessing the aftermath, rather than letting agony and resentment consume him, he devoted his craft to encourage understanding human nature and those from other cultures. As fan, friend and translator Frederik L. Schodt described Tezuka’s wisdom after WWII in his book, The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution, “he developed a lifelong interest in the complexity of human nature, a deep belief in the need to communicate with other cultures, and a belief in the power of manga and animation to help do so” (Schodt, 30). These themes were greatly explored throughout Tezuka’s works and were perfectly fitting for the time.
Astro Boy’s introduction goes back to 1951 in a series entitled Atomu Taishi (Ambassador Atom) for Shōnen’s (Boys) magazine. Ironically, although Atom was the titular character, he served as a plot device for later in the story. Due to the overly complex plot and the high number of characters, Ambassador Atom was met with minor success. However, Atom became a favorite amount Tezuka’s young readers. Under Shōnen magazine’s then editor-and-chief, Takeshi Kanai’s suggestion, Tezuka made Atom the lead character. At first, he was reluctant to do so, deeming it difficult to make a robot a relatable character, but Kanai suggested to rewrite the character with human traits. Atom was reworked to behave like a young school boy, which resonated with Tezuka’s readers. The Mighty Atom manga series was met with great success.
Although Tezuka’s forte was illustration and storytelling, his true passion was animation. He had hoped to create fluid animation just like the works of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, whose works he grew up with. In 1961, Tezuka started a small studio called Tezuka Osamu Productions, which later became Mushi Productions the following year. According to Schodt, “Tezuka’s goal was to create both commercial and experimental animation, using profits from the former to the latter. But in the beginning, everything would have to be financed by the profits from his manga work” (64). That meant that the company's animation projects would be completed on a tight budget and with limitations, therefore Mushi Productions used the limited animation technique created by Hanna-Barbera and UPA than the full animation that the likes of Disney. As simple as it sounded, this labor of love turned into a seemingly bottomless commitment to completion. In other words, Tezuka and his creative team would overwork long hours to the point of burnout from staying overnight and working with nearly no breaks.
Because of the long hours of labor Mushi Productions put into the making of the Mighty Atom/Astro Boy anime, the animated series proved to be a huge success both in Japan and overseas. So, the good news was that Tezuka paved the way for the Japanese animation industry to flourish and with the help of television writer and editor, Fred Ladd introducing Mighty Atom (under the name Astro Boy) to American audiences, new Japanese animated works would continue to prosper and branch out to the United States in the years and decades to come. The bad news was that because Tezuka was the first Japanese animator to create a television series, consisting of 30-minute-long episodes, something that was never done in Japan before, his approach to creating animated shows became the standard for Japanese animators. As a known fact that to say working as an animator in Japan is no easy task is undeniably an understatement, yet modern anime follows in the footsteps of Tezuka’s workflow, which leads to low pay. If the working conditions are not healthy for their employees, why is Tezuka’s approach still used to this day? According to Toshi Nakamura on Kotaku in his article How The "Godfather of Anime" Screwed Up Modern Anime, “Tezuka…supported his creation through merchandising and his own money. This lay the groundwork for the anime production model: Make an anime a[s] cheaply as possible and make up the loss through tie-in goods and character merch. Because Tezuka was basically the God of manga in Japan, no one questioned his methods and this became the norm”. It should also be noted that Tezuka did not approach animation the way a businessman would. “Unfortunately,” writes Schodt, “hoping to make the series more competitive and thinking that it would ward off potential competitors, an over-confident Tezuka agreed in his bid to Fuji TV to adhere to a cost and production schedule that bordered in the inhuman” (67) and of corse, the money made off the merchandise wasn’t enough to cover expenses. With each new work, the company continued to produce and the expenses continued to raise. Debt accumulated, proving it difficult to make a profit. 119 Mushi Production employees started a union in the early 1970’s, with prompted Tezuka to step down as president and in 1973, the studio filed for bankruptcy. This lead the company’s intellectual property to legal issues that didn’t come to a complete solution until the late ‘90’s. Mushi Prodections did relaunch in the late 70’s as the new Mushi Productions, but Tezuka had no part in it. As Schodt notes, Tezuka “was primarily a creator and not a businessman like Walt Disney” (94-95) and thus, his dream to excel in animation never materialized. He did continue working on animation while writing new manga through his original company name, Tezuka Productions after recovering from debt and would continue his work until his death in 1989.
Over the years, during and after Tezuka’s lifetime, anime as an art form took on new shapes and genres, appealing to various audiences and age groups. With expansions and/or breakaways from Tezuka’s art style and storytelling, new creators would tackle the sci-fi genre with series such as Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Iron Man No. 28 (Tetsujin 28-go), Go Nagai's Mazinger Z (Majingā Zetto), both of which were derived from manga and Yoshiyuki Tomino' s Mobile Suit Gundam (Kidō Senshi Gandamu), which spawned manga adaptions. Early 1963, Toei Dōga stood out from other anime by adding more frames per second in Wolf Boy Ken (Ōkami Shōnen Ken), a series taking place in the jungle featuring a Mowgli type protagonist. It was an original idea not based on a preexisting manga. In contrast to Mushi Productions, whose animation was mostly static except for one body part being animated, Toei Dōga took on a cinematic quality. This was not surprising considering their early expertise in film making with Hakujaden. At first, they were reluctant to take advantage of the new medium, but realizing television was flourishing, they began exploring its marketing possibilities. Although only one episode was dubbed in English, featuring the voices of Hanna-Barbera voice legends Daws Butler and Don Messick, Tōei Animation released the series on DVD sets in Japan and continue to produce new animated titles to this day. Even so, they too proved anime can expand to other genres, especially with the 1966 release, Sally the Witch (Mahōtsukai Sarī), which was based on Yokoyama's manga of the same name. Although it never received a U.S. release, it is known as one of the first shōjo (magical girl) anime along with Tezuka’s Princess Knight (Ribbon no Kishi) manga and anime.
While using the same animation workflow and limited animation techniques still stands prevalent to this day in the industry, former Tōei Doga in-between artist and Studio Ghibli co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki has been an outspoken critic of the industry because of Tezuka’s unintentional template that lead to the industry’s current state. “Miyazaki openly defied the Tezuka model, creating Studio Ghibli, a production studio that hired animators as employees on a fixed salary rather than temps working on commission”, writes Nakamura. Aside from workflow, even artistically in animation, the team at Studio Ghibli meticulously focus on realistically capturing people, unlike most of anime, in which they often take short cuts when it comes to conveying expression and emotion. Miyazaki is not the only one who recognizes the Japanese animation industry’s flaws and resists them. “Other anime studios like Kyoto Animation and P.A. Works set up their studios outside of Tokyo and develop their anime in-house rather than outsourcing, with dormitories and other systems in place to support their animators” Nakamura indicates.
Reflecting on the first century of Japanese animation, viewers and fans will garner a deeper appreciation for anime as an art form. From the early years using cut out animation to learning from Western animation to the early years of television animation and so on, there’s no doubt anime has come a long way and will continue to evolve. With its broad audiences and array of genres and styles, the art form continues to show promise for further growth and will continue to thrive for generations to come.
In Part 1 of this blog post, I delved into the early origins of Japanese animation debunking the assumption that Osamu Tezuka’s 1963 beloved animated series Astro Boy is the first anime in existence. Based on a panel presented by Charles Dunbar (Study of Anime) at this year’s Anime Boston, deftly titled, The First Anime: It’s Astro Boy, Right?, I discuss some of the early short films used during the presentation plus some groundbreaking films made in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. I provide some historical context of what went into the making of the earliest known and surviving films as well as lost gems and how the art form built up from 1907 to the 1930’s. Moreover, I also review the new innovative approaches that were emerging in the years prior to the second World War.
In the early years of anime, animators used cut outs as seen in Namakura Gatana (1917), Urashima Taro (1918), Kobu Tori (1929) and Mura Matsuri (1930) due to the financial cost of materials other countries could afford. The use of cel-animation rose in the mid-1930’s with Chagama Ondo (1934 or 1935), which was created by Kenzo Masaoka. Ari-chan (1941) by Mitsuyo Seo was the first known anime to use multicamera, a technique used in Disney animation such as in Silly Symphonies, which it’s likely that the film was inspired by the 1934 short, The Grasshopper & the Ants. Not only did Seo utilize the multicamera technique in Ari-chan as seen in the Silly Symphonies short, but his character designs and fluidity in his animation display a slight resemblance. With creative innovators like Masaoka and Seo, the boundaries that restricted the art of Japanese animation were slowly fading and the art form was starting to develop in quality.
Unfortunately, these creative breakthroughs were proven difficult be commercially supported. Due to government control, prewar animation had to be approved and subsidized. This reduced the industry’s productions to public relations (PR) films, as well as educational and propaganda films. One example of a propaganda film of the time was the 1936 short entitled The Toy Chest. This featured Disney’s iconic mascot, Mickey Mouse as the main antagonist attacking Japan. The army accompanying Mickey consists of sinister looking bats and serpents, the islanders are depicted as dolls and stuffed animals and their heroic figure is the Japanese folklore hero, Momotaro, also known as Calm Peach Boy. The film notoriously displayed immense prejudice against Americans and throughout World War II, creative direction was very limited to producing films like it with the same indoctrinating messages.
In 1945, the first full-length anime feature film, Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei or Momotaro’s Devine Sea Warriors was released less than a month before the war ended. The 74-minute long movie is a sequel to 1943 propaganda short, Momotaro no Umiwashi or Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, which runs at 37 minutes. After the war, the Japanese animation industry was at a standstill and thus, no new films were being made until 1948. Japan was the most financially stable among its neighboring countries and therefore, could rebuild its animation industry.
During that year, a new company, Japan Animated Films was founded and eventually bought by Toei Animation in 1956. In 1958, they released the first full-length color anime film, Hakujaden or Panda and the Magic Serpent. The story is about a young boy, who is forced to set his pet snake free. What he doesn’t know is that the snake is a spiritual being. Years later while taking on a human form, she seeks out to find him.
Inspired by the Song Dynasty Chinese folktale, Legend of the White Snake, the project was made as an act of reconciliation between Japan and its neighboring countries. According to Charles in response to an email I sent, he speculates that it possibly might have been "a way to go around censors or avoid old fears that Japan might use new animation as a form of bunka eiga". Because of Japan's history of utilizing animation as a propaganda tool, most notably with Norakuro and Momotaro, it's a perfectly plausible assumption. According to AniPages writer and blogger, Ben Ettinger in his post about Toei Dōga, "[t]o strike a tone of reconciliation with the Asian neighbors Japan had so brutally treated in the recent past, Toei president, Hiroshi Okawa decided on a Chinese story for this film, the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of Japan, the historic implications of which he fully understood".
Consisting of over 13,000 team members and eight months to complete, Hakujaden was zealously constructed and with every extensive commitment to detail, it became strongly influential all around the world. Bringing the art of Japanese animation another step further, Toei Animation also garnered the nickname as the ‘Disney of the East’ after the film’s debut as it was their first challenge to emulate the level of artistry of Western animation studios.
The 1960’s was the decade when the anime industry would start to take flight and truly begin to flourish. From the big screen to television, Japan’s first anime television show entitled, Otogi Manga Calendar or Instant History made its debut in 1961. The basic premise of the series, as the title suggests, dealt with major historical events and involved an animated character learning about it through archived footage and photographs. Unfortunately, the series remains lost to this day and never made its way to home releases. Due to technological costs and limitations, none of the episodes were recorded and the master tapes used for television were most likely discarded or repurposed with new content recorded over. The surviving still image from the show documenting its existence, depicting two comedically drawn cavemen, leaves viewers with a basic idea of what the character designs looked like. At first glance, they resemble a Hanna-Barbera cartoon as their appearance shares absolutely no similarities to any traits most viewers associate with anime. This leaves us with not only how Osamu Tezuka contributed to shaping anime, but also how other studios played their part in making the art form what it is today, which will be explored in the third and final part of this blog post.
Anime Boston 2017 was another phenomenal gathering for anime fans especially since this year's theme was a huge throwback celebration: Retro! From nostalgic based panels and workshops catered to popular classics like Sailor Moon and Detective Conan to rediscovering obscure classics, fans were bound to garner new insights about the medium. Whether discovering new revelations about familiar classics or coming across rare and forgotten gems, such a throwback themed event certainly would not have been complete without a panel spotlighting the origins of anime. And it all began with Osamu Tezuka’s 1963 beloved classic, Astro Boy, right?...Well...the answer might surprise you.
The First Anime: It's Astro Boy, Right?, presented by Japanese cultural educator and Study of Anime founder, Charles Dunbar debunks the familiar assumption. The panel, as the title implies, delves into Japanese animated works prior to and during 1963. Although, I was not able to attend the panel due to a change in the schedule, I emailed Charles to get a basic idea of what was discussed to gather some information for this blog post. The panel showcased several clips, highlighting how anime evolved in the decades before the 1960's and the stylistic differences between Toei Animation and Tezuka’s studio, Mushi Pro during ’63, (which I’ll go over in Part 3). Upon doing some further research, I came across several interesting facts about the surviving short films, most of which will be covered here.
While Tezuka is famously known as the Father of Manga as well as the Walt Disney of Anime, the art of Japanese animation dates back even earlier in the 20th century. The first known anime ever created is the three second animation, Katsudou Shashin (1907). Unfortunately, most of these works have been destroyed or remain lost to this day following The Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923, which slowed down the industry’s development. In Part 1 of this blog post, I’ll be covering the years building up to World War II and the challenges the Japanese animation industry faced from 1917 to 1934. Part 2 will be focused on the types of works created during WWII, Toei Animation's 1958 full length feature film, Hakujaden and the first anime on television in 1961. In Part 3, I will cover 1963 in-depth and how the art form continued to expand in the coming years.
The 1910's expanded into more story driven animation. Namakura Gatana or Dull-Edged Sword (1917) is a two-minute short that tells the tale of a clueless samurai who thoughtlessly buys an ineffective sword and learns his lesson the hard way upon conceiving defeat each time he encounters an opponent. It is the first known early piece to have a story complete with a beginning, middle and end. Due to the costs of celluloids which other countries were taking advantage of, Namakura Gatana was created using cut outs. It would also be the first animated short to showcase Japan’s animation style. Another known title prior to the earthquake is Urashima Taro or The Fisher Lad (1918), which is based on a Nara Period Japanese fairy tale. It follows the story of a faithful, benevolent fisherman who upon rescuing a turtle is invited to a palace under the sea.
After the Great Kantō Earthquake, Japan was falling behind other countries in animation, most notably Disney. This as a result prompted animators to start their own studios with small teams. In the years prior the mid-1930’s, they continued to use cut out animation techniques, one of which is seen in Kobu Tori or The Stolen Lump (1929). It tells the story of an elderly man with a huge lump growing on his face. After a storm hits, he discovers the forest is inhabited by mythical hybrid beasts and their leader. With his talent to dance, the elderly man impresses them and in return, they remove the lump from his face. Upon returning to his village, he informs someone with a similar problem of their existence. However, this does not mean that he too would be lucky to meet the same fate as the main character. The animation of Mura Matsuri or Harvest Festival (1930 presumably) was designed and animated, using chiyogami. The plot follows the traditional Japanese song and dance of the festival.
Japanese animators began to utilize cels and voiceovers in their later projects in the mid-1930’s. The first known anime to contain voiceover work is the lost film Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka or Within the World of Power and Women (1933). The first anime to use cel-animation was Chagama Ondo or The Dance of the Chagamas (1934 or 1935). Both films were created by Kenzo Masaoka. The first film known to use multicamera was Ari-chan (1941) by Mitsuyo Seo. Masaoka and Seo notably pulled for Japanese animation to be on par with the quality of other countries. It’s possible that Ari-chan was inspired by Disney’s Silly Symphonies animation, The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934). Not only do they share some striking similarities in character designs and movement, but their presentation and stylization is also identical.
While these works still had a long way to go before matching up to the works of American animation as that of Disney, this shift in the materials used and the elaborate camera techniques slightly improved the quality of these films. Unfortunately, as these creative breakthroughs were starting to flourish, most of these works could not be commercially supported unless approved by the government. The years before and during WWII would place limitations on creative input and artistic vision under government control, thus leaving innovation out of the business model as will be discussed in Part 2.
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