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The Dark Age of Animation
"TV is such a monster. It swallows up all this animation so fast that nobody seems to care whether it's good or bad. These kids shows are badly done technically; it seems as though nobody really looks at them but the kids...the networks don't look at the show, they just look at the ratings. If the ratings are good, to heck with the show. They don't care whether it's just a bouncing ball."
Friz Freleng, sharing his feelings about some of the detrimental effects of the era.

The unfortunate successor to The Golden Age of Animation, slowly setting in at the late 1950s and slowly fading out at some point during the '80s note . Limited Animation was the rule, not the exception during this time. Its start coincided with the Fall of the Studio System in Hollywood. The theatrical short slowly died off, and cartoons moved to television. Naturally, this era would leave a lasting impression on the American culture, for better or for worse, as the primary target audience for cartoons became children.

To start with, Limited Animation was primarily an artistic choice for animators like Chuck Jones and John Hubley who were tired of Disneyfication. With the death of UPA and MGM animation studios, it became primarily about saving time and money.note  Hanna-Barbera was very prominent during this time, thanks to how cheaply produced and rushed their television cartoons were. Given how these series used dialogue over visuals to move the stories forward, they became what Jones would describe with justified derision as "illustrated radio." Still, they created not only successful kids fare like Yogi Bear, but prime time series like the enduring The Flintstones and the influential Adventure Series, Jonny Quest, which created a whole new television animation genre. Unfortunately, the studio soon fell into a crippling creative rut with the Saturday Morning Cartoon timeslot, which led to them endlessly copying the concepts of their successful shows like Scooby-Doo and The Smurfs and long running shows like Super Friends.

Filmation also got its start during this time, although it wouldn't hit its stride until much later during the '80s. In the meantime, it did give us shows like Star Trek: The Animated Series (which was a continuation of the original show after it was canceled) while Bill Cosby's Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was a surprisingly enduring Edutainment change of pace. However, like Hanna-Barbera, they also relied on notoriously low budget animation (possibly even more so than the other company) and corner cutting to get their cartoons out as quickly and cheaply as possible. Hanna-Barbera writers Joe Ruby and Ken Spears also formed Ruby-Spears around this time and churned out a number of properties based on celebrities, toys, and other Animated Adaptations of sitcoms, mimicking their former employer's animated style to a T. Friz Freleng kept his own hand in the field with DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, which created The Pink Panther and various series before being purchased by Marvel Comics to become Marvel Productions.

Unfortunately, the budgetary constraints became ever more onerous on producers, with rock bottom arguably being Clutch Cargo with its ridiculous "Synchro-Vox" method of using live action lips speaking the dialogue; at least Gantray-Lawrence's xerography method for The Marvel Super Heroes largely captured the heady energy of artists like Jack Kirby to make it look like the Super Hero comics have come to life. Furthermore, the Animation Age Ghetto was made all the worse with parents groups pressuring the networks to impose ever more onerous and arbitrary content restrictions, such as The Complainer Is Always Wrong and Never Say "Die" while classic cartoons like Looney Tunes were censored to near oblivion. In fact, it got to the point where basic conflict, the soul of drama, was all but discouraged on saturday mornings creating bland stuff like The Get Along Gang, and the short development period for greenlit shows before the season opening made things worse. However, that lobbying did have some positive results: the push for educational programmings helped create the classic Schoolhouse Rock shorts, which taught whole generations with wonderfully tuneful songs.

In somewhat better artistic position was the realm of prime time TV specials, which didn't have the overwhelming budgetary and production time demands of full series. For instance, there was Rankin-Bass, which created a large series of Stop Motion productions in a process called Animagic such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town. There was also the animated adaptation of the Peanuts comic strip by Lee Mendelson Film Productions, which started with the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas whose rushed production was more than compensated with a profound artistic sincerity and the jazz music compositions by Vince Guaraldi.

However, this does not mean everything from this era was bad. Disney's output remained respectable and generally well animated. However, the failure of the lavish feature film, Sleeping Beauty, prompted both a downsizing of the animation studio and a retreat from fairy tales for years. These changes showed in their next feature, 101 Dalmatians, their first film to be unambiguously set in contemporary times. Furthermore, the studio took advantage of a new technology called xerography, a dry photocopying process that eliminated the need to hand-ink the animation, which was the only practical way to produce a film with such visual complexity. However, the technology only allowed for black outlines, which forced a hard scratchy visual style for years until The Rescuers when softer outlines with various colors were possible.

In addition, Walt Disney began to draw away his focus on films due to his increased interest for television and theme park projects at the time. Disney had been feeling more and more creatively stifled as the decades moved on; the bold, experimental projects that had made him a household name in the 1920s and 1930s nearly ruined him in the 1940s as audiences tastes changed. In the 1950s he decided to play it a bit safer and released more family-friendly material, while focusing his energy on other ventures. He attempted one last shot at a more experimental animated film at the end of the decade with Sleeping Beauty, but as mentioned above the film was a box office failure. That consequently had a noticeable effect on the quality of the 1960s Disney films, and the death of Walt in the middle of the decade hit the company extremely hard, sending their studio into a hard slump post-The Jungle Book. Although they would release a few features that critics enjoyed and made money, Disney continued to struggle until the release of two movies in the late 80's that were huge hits with critics and audiences and showed that they finally recovered enough to be compared to their Golden Age heights.

Looney Tunes was still producing some decent and entertaining shorts late in The Fifties, as some of its most memorable shorts were from this decade. Animation quality was down, but the writing, along with the direction of Chuck Jones, managed to produce some timeless classics in spite of that. However, due to budget problems Warner Bros. forcibly shut down its animation studio for good in this era. (Although a brief revival was unsuccessfully attempted late during the 60s.) Ironically, the characters would get a revival in the form of the smash hit anthology repackaging series The Bugs Bunny Show, which reaired many of their old theatrical cartoons and, being exposed to younger audiences, ultimately helped to immortalize the characters as pop culture icons. In syndication, The Porky Pig Show did the same for many other shorts that weren't shown on its parent series. (And not just Warner Bros., either; if any motion picture company had a theatrical short to their name, animated or not, they would be on the bandwagon.) The surviving players of the Golden Age were about to get back in the game, in a big way.

Limited Animation pioneer Hubley did his best work at UPA in the '50s, with shows such as Gerald McBoing-Boing. Later he left UPA and became a noted independent animator, producing a series of distinctive and personal films with his wife Faith. And this was a booming period for trippy, avant-garde European animation such as Fantastic Planet and Yellow Submarine. In Canada, the National Film Board Of Canada encouraged exploration in all kinds of Deranged Animation techniques, most famously with the work of Norman McLaren who produced wildly creative shorts like Begone Dull Care (Drawn On Film animation set to Oscar Peterson's jazz music), Neighbours (Pixiliation) and Pas Ex Deux (Ballet dance with optical printing enhancements).

Animator Ralph Bakshi, who got his start in this era working in the twilight years of Terrytoons, rose to prominence during this era thanks to Fritz the Cat. This film, along with Watership Down, challenged the idea that cartoons were solely "kids' stuff", an idea that was becoming increasingly popular at the time due to the diminishing quality of the cartoons of that time period, as well as people becoming overly familiar with the Disney style of family oriented entertainment coming out.

Bakshi would also go on to make a variety of animated features that challenged the Animation Age Ghetto such as an animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, which despite extremely mixed critical reaction was ultimately a box office success. Lesser films included the downbeat urban drama, Heavy Traffic, the musical history drama American Pop and the Frazetta inspired fantasy, Fire and Ice. The Canadian Heavy Metal would create its own cult interest late in the game (1981) with its erotic dark fantasy stories set to throbbing music. Even Hanna-Barbera brought a respectable adaptation of Charlotte's Web to the big screen in 1973. Some cartoons from this era may have had mediocre to poor animation but were ultimately saved by good writing; shows like Rocky and Bullwinkle would be a particularly good example of that. Likewise, Terry Gilliam's surreal animated skits in Monty Python's Flying Circus - utilizing his own artwork, antique photographs, and classical music and military marches played at double speed - would prove to be enormously influential.

Also, Anime was making its first impact in North America with such imports as Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Star Blazers, Kimba the White Lion and Battle of the Planets. While it often was crudely Bowdlerized, the form's distinctive look and content created a cult following that would eventually grow into much more.

The Soviet Russia reversal, however, is still at its dirty job. Behind the "iron curtain", many USSR cartoons saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Some are dark, some are educational, some are just damn fun. And not only were successful inside the country (we're not even speaking about a huge amount of fans who love them even today and make English translations of these cartoons for you)... one even got a ton of awards. Considerably, the animation cut was not an option for Ivanov-Vano's cartoons made in this era, every one of which made you feel like you're back to Disney's times of rise when hand-drawn people and animals moved as smooth as never before (and after). However, Eastern European Animation also brought us Gene Deitch's Tom and Jerry shorts in the 1960s, which were...interesting to say the least.

Animation Age Ghetto is a trope that has its roots firmly planted in this era. Check it out to see the full impact of this era on the typical viewer's idea of a cartoon nowadays.

Chances are whenever you see a parody of this era or something that was made during it, it's either a Take That or an Affectionate Parody at the least.

For this era's successor, see The Renaissance Age of Animation (which lasted from the 1980s through the '90s).

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Tropes associated with this era include:


The Golden Age of AnimationHistory of AnimationThe Renaissance Age of Animation
What's Opera, Doc?The FiftiesBaby Huey
The Golden Age of AnimationUseful NotesThe Renaissance Age of Animation
The Golden Age of AnimationWestern AnimationThe Renaissance Age of Animation

alternative title(s): Dark Age Of Animation
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