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Useful Notes / The Dark Age of Animation

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"We ran into a stone wall because some citizens, for the protection of the children of the world, have decided cartoons are evil, that they're violent and full of mayhem. We showed [ABC] five of the old 'Tom and Jerrys' and they laughed so hard, they had tears in their eyes. Then they said 'We can't use them. If we put those on, we'll get killed.'"

The unfortunate successor to The Golden Age of Animation, starting in the late 1950s and lasting until the early 1980s. 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 American culture, for better or for worse, as the primary target audience for cartoons became children.

Originally, Limited Animation was primarily an artistic choice for filmmakers like Chuck Jones, Robert Cannon, and John Hubley who were tired of Disneyfication. With the closures of UPA and MGM's animation studios, it became primarily about saving time and money.note  Hanna-Barbera – founded by the eponymous duo in response to MGM shuttering its animation unit and firing them – 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 in the 60s like Yogi Bear, but prime time series like The Flintstones and The Jetsons 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 long running shows like Super Friends.


Filmation also got its start during this time, although it wouldn't hit prominence 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 cancelled), Flash Gordon, and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle which were wonderfully respectful of their source material, 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 (even more so than H-B) 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. Former WB director Friz Freleng kept his own hand in the field with De Patie Freleng Enterprises, which supervised the final batch of theatrical Looney Tunes shorts and then 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 Superhero 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 programming 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 adaptations of the Peanuts comic strip by Lee Mendelson and Bill Meléndez beginning with the instant-classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, whose rushed production was more than compensated by 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 the next 30 years. These changes showed in their next feature, 101 Dalmatians, their second 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-Jungle Book. Although they would release a few features that critics enjoyed and made money, Disney continued to struggle, forced to use re-releases and the theme parks to stay afloat, 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 '50s, 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 1963 (though a brief revival was unsuccessfully attempted in the late 1960s). 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 John Hubley did his best work at UPA in the '50s, with theatrical shorts such as Gerald Mc Boingboing. Later he left UPA and became a noted independent animator, producing a series of distinctive and personal films with his wife Faith as well as educational shorts for PBS shows. 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 (pixilation) and Pas de deux (ballet 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 Frank 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, Space Battleship Yamato (aka Star Blazers), Kimba the White Lion, Battle of the Planets and, toward the tail end of the era, Voltron. Not to mention the various kiddie series that populated basic and pay cable channels, such as Superbook, The Little Prince, and Honey Honey. While it often was crudely Bowdlerized, the form's distinctive look and content created a cult following that would eventually grow into much more, although production quality – following the tricks of the trade pioneered by Osamu Tezuka – started and remained very low-budget and corner-cutting until the medium blossomed in the early 80's in tandem with Japan's rising economic fortunes. In Japan itself, animation as a medium began to slowly break out of its version of the Ghetto with Tezuka's Mushi Productions' "Animerama" films plus 1971's Lupin III: Part 1, the first anime specifically for adults… which failed in its initial run but was later vindicated by reruns and served as a green-light for networks to air less-kiddy shows from the likes of Go Nagai and Leiji Matsumoto. Many popular animated franchises (some still going to this day) got their start in this era, like Sazae-san, Doraemon, World Masterpiece Theater, Urusei Yatsura, and the Gundam franchise.

The Soviet Russian Reversal, however, was still in effect. Behind the "Iron Curtain", many Soviet cartoons saw light at the end of the tunnel. Some are dark, some are educational, some are just damn fun. And not only were they successful inside the country (Not even talking about a huge amount of fans who love them even today and make English translations), one of them even got a ton of awards. Considerably, Limited Animation was not an option for Ivan Ivanov-Vano's cartoons made in this era, every one of which felt like a throwback to the time of Disney's golden era when hand-drawn people and animals moved as smooth as never before (or after). However, the Eastern European industry also brought forth 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, due to a growing emphasis on conservative values from the 50's onward that led to Moral Guardians attacking anything that they didn't consider child-friendly. Check it out to see the full impact of this era on the typical viewer's idea of a cartoon nowadays.

The end of this period is usually believed to be the early 1980's, though the exact year is debated. Some say the dark age ended in 1981note , others say it was in 1983note , while others claim it happened as late as 1985note . For this era's successor, see The Renaissance Age of Animation (which lasted from the mid-1980s through the early 2000s).

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.

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