Today in Tedium: A little less than 15 years ago, I heard an album that blew my goddamn mind. It did not appear on Pitchfork’s recent list of the top 200 albums of the past 25 years, and it’s a real shame, because I think it made me realize that all the weird stuff I was inspired by as a kid could have an adult context. That record is Dan Deacon’s Spiderman of the Rings, an electronic masterpiece made of junk parts, including a cheap Casio keyboard. The first track on that album is a deconstruction of the Woody Woodpecker theme song called “Wooody Wooodpecker.” I found myself thinking about that song recently when I was in the actual woods, and I heard literal woodpeckers doing their thing high up in the trees. And that got me thinking: Isn’t it weird how much nature inspired a medium as plainly artificial as animation? Many of the early iconic characters were animals, doing animal things, whether on a farm or in a forest. And somehow, all these outdoor characters became fodder for people to sit inside and watch on a screen. Today’s Tedium ponders the natural forces that inspired our anthropomorphic animated worlds. — Ernie @ Tedium
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“But if cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, horses like horses and cattle like cattle also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have.”
— Xenophanes of Colophon, an early Greek theologian and philosopher, discussing the need to discourage an anthropomorphic approach to how humans perceive gods, advice which has been ignored by hundreds of millions of people in the centuries since, including Joan Osborne. Xenophanes’ commentary is nonetheless some of the earliest we have on record of giving human features to animals, the general topic of this article, which I guess means we have to mention him here.
The naturalistic artist whose work inspired the animated-animal craze that took over early cartoons
Cartoons were always zany—the first traditionally animated film, Émile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie, definitely played with form in many of the ways that modern cartoons do, even if it did so in 1908 ways—but nature was always close by.
For that reason, it makes sense that Winsor McCay, a famed comic-strip artist during the newspaper wars of the early 1900s, would jump into animation. McCay was best known for creating the slumberland of Little Nemo, which started as a comic book but became the basis for a 1911 animation that was highly meta, focused just as much on McCay’s creative process as it was the drawing itself. At one point, a giant dragon is shown, mouth open, carrying Nemo and a female counterpart in a giant throne. (The full animation is linked off, for a reason: Some of the characters in the comic leaned heavily on ethnic stereotypes that would be considered offensive today, most notably the African character Impie. The cartoon is historically important, but it is very much a product of its time in all the negative ways that phrase can be taken.)
McCay is responsible for one of the earliest cartoons that could be seen as bringing a naturalistic element to animation, Gertie the Dinosaur. An epic animation for 1914, it feels like you’re watching a sketch sheet come to life, bringing a realistic representation of a dinosaur in action. It did not look anything like the much-more-exaggerated animations that would show up in movie theaters around the country just a decade or two later.
To underline the point that his fingerprints were all over this creation, McCay would integrate Gertie into his vaudeville act, showing the dinosaur doing tricks—an unfinished sequel to the original film doubled down on this premise. However, Gertie animations were limited because of the painstaking work involved to create them. McCay redrew everything by hand himself, a time-consuming process.
John Canemaker, a historian on animation, wrote a 2005 book on McCay, discussing the things that inspired him and his approach to artistry, as well as the detail that made his work unique:
Winsor’s mother once told a relative that when her eldest son was six years of age “he could draw beautifully.” McCay’s father corroborated his son’s insatiable need to draw: “From the time he was a little fellow, all the while he was in school, he was drawing pictures. He used to get whipped in school for drawing sketches on the leaves of his books until I told the teachers it was of no use; nothing could stop him?” His father also attested to the technical accuracy of Winsor’s drawings: “His work was true, even when he was a youngster. One day he drew a picture of a sleigh-load of logs. He got every bolthead on the side represented in its proper place in the picture, and he didn’t count them either. He just stood off a way from the sleigh and drew them. He even had the owner’s markings on the ends of the logs.”
The young artist’s seemingly effortless ability to add intricate detail accurately to his graphics in fact resulted from close observation and a cognitive process he later called “memory sketching.” “I have never made a drawing of a box car or a coach,” McCay explained, “but if I were given the order to make one, I’ll wager I could get every important detail in the trucks as well as the rest. Why? Simply because I have studied these things with my eyes; I have put them up here in my cranium, and there they’ll stay until I need them.” McCay’s magical recall of visual details would never cease to amaze many of his newspaper colleagues.
Winsor McCay never became Walt Disney or even Felix the Cat creator Max Fleisher, but a large part of that may lie in the fact that McCay’s works focused on the process of a talented animator building a creation—think a 1910s take on Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected, and you’re kind of on the right track—rather than trying to tell a deep story with the animation itself.
But he did inspire others who followed in his footsteps. One of those people was Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker, along with Walt Disney.
Speaking to the Muskegon Chronicle in 2007, Canemaker made the case that McCay’s naturalistic style had a deep influence on what came after.
”We can truly say he was the first artist who started a type of animation that Disney would do later—personality animation where they want you to believe the characters they have created are real,” Canemaker said. “Disney did not try that until 20 years after Winsor McCay.”
“I don’t like formal gardens. I like wild nature. It’s just the wilderness instinct in me, I guess.”
— A quote attributed to Walt Disney from multiple sources, including the Disney Twitter account. (I can find a citation as early as 1994 from a book of Walt Disney quotations.) It can be argued that Disney’s ability to take inspiration from the outside world has portrayed itself in many of his movies, most notably Bambi and Fantasia, as well as his theme parks.
Woody Woodpecker was inspired by an actual woodpecker
Given the fact that Walter Lantz was pulled into animation by Gertie the Dinosaur, it’s only fitting that he spent much of his career working on anthropomorphic animals for his toons. One of his most famous cartoons reflects the way in which he crossed paths with Walt Disney: In the late 1920s, Lantz took control of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a character created by Disney that Lantz won the right to animate in a fateful game of poker after Disney lost the character in a bad business deal with film producer Charles Mintz. (The loss of the character, owned by Universal for decades before being returned to Disney’s namesake company in an unusual copyright swap many decades later, deeply inspired Disney’s infamous approach to copyright.)
Woody Woodpecker came later, after Lantz had landed on what seemed to be a suitable replacement for Oswald, Andy Panda (which was inspired by, you guessed it, an encounter with a panda). It turned out that annoyance became the inspiration behind his greatest character. As he recalled in a 1979 interview with Stars and Stripes:
At 79 the longest practicing film animator in the world, Lantz tells of how he transformed an expensive irritation into a wealthy fortune. In 1941, he relates, he married stage actress Grace Stafford and moved to a place he called Sherwood Forest, a mountain retreat 20 miles above Los Angeles.
Recalling Edgar Allen Poe’s raven, there came a tap-tap-tapping—not at Lantz’s window, but on his roof.
“This woodpecker was pecking on the roof all the time, annoying us so much that I tried everything I could think of to get rid of him,” Lantz relates ruefully. “In fact, I was going to try to shoot him, which would be a terrible thing to do. He ruined my roof once or twice, and everytime he did that, it cost me two or three hundred dollars.”
But rather than shoot the woodpecker, Lantz (with a nudge from Stafford) turned it into a work of animated art.
“Gracie said, ‘why don’t you have him join you? You’ve had Oswald Rabbit, you’ve had Andy Panda, Buzz Buzzard, all these characters. You’ve never had a woodpecker …’,” he recalled, in a the-rest-is-history moment.
(Walt Disney had a similar run-in with a mouse who inspired the mascot from which he built his empire, Mickey.)
Now, Woody Woodpecker doesn’t get the headlines of Disney’s many works despite being one of Universal’s best-known animated characters, but new animations featuring the animated bird are still being churned out today, appearing as an original program on YouTube, something I’m sure you probably didn’t notice unless you have kids under the age of 10.
The number of Felix the Cat cartoons originally distributed by Paramount Pictures in the first few years of its successful run. The character, originally known as Master Tom, became the first really dominant character of the animated form and directly inspired many other early animated characters, but the initial phenomenon had largely run its course by the time “talkies” came along. (Like Woody Woodpecker and Mickey Mouse, Felix was directly inspired by an actual animal.)
So why did anthropomorphism come to dominate animation, anyway?
The root of this discussion really comes down to what led animators to try to humanize things that would otherwise be more animal-like. Anthropomorphism is a phenomenon that goes back literally thousands of years, and has a long history in art and literature.
Aesop was literally humanizing animals in fables 2,700 years ago—or, at least, someone credited as Aesop was, as there is no proof he actually existed. And before that, drawings dating back to ancient Egypt had given animal properties to human representations. (Or is it the other way around?)
And some of the dominant works of literature in the late 19th and early 20th century reflect this tendency as well. Lewis Carroll, just as an example, basically built his career around this, creating lots of human-animal hybrids in his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland way back in 1865.
The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum’s 1900 parable about populism, used anthropomorphic characters to make a point about humanity, going so far as to not even use animals for two of the characters, while still borrowing the same general approach.
But clearly, something about animation took these already prevalent trends in culture—that is, our tendency to try to find the human in the animal—and kicked things into overdrive. Film and animation author Paul Wells, in a 2008 book titled The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture, ponders at length the nature of giving animals human characteristics, and explains that a large element of it is that they can reflect things about culture that humans cannot necessarily do on their own. As he puts it early in the book:
At one and the same time, such characters can be beasts and humans, or neither; can prompt issues about gender, race and ethnicity, generation, and identity, or not; and can operate innocently or subversively, or as something else entirely. This sense of ambiguity or ambivalence in the language of animation will be at the core of my discussion here. The use of animation can dilute the implications of meaning—after all, this is the artifice of drawings, puppets, objects, virtual simulacra, etc.—or it can amplify it—the illusionism providing exaggeration and fabricated emphasis, throwing the ideas and issues into relief.
One could take this in a lot of directions, obviously: Bugs Bunny could, in its original context, be seen as a metaphor for the ineptitude of man trying and failing to control something it thinks it should be able to. (An idea refined in the later Road Runner cartoons.)
Tom and Jerry could be seen as an attempt to bring human stakes to a game of cat and mouse. Donald Duck highlights the entirely-relatable way that temperament boils over for many.
But beyond the easy metaphors animals allowed in the animated context, there was also a bit of trend-chasing at play in the early animation field. Comic artists became some of the earliest animators, and that style clearly inspired some of the earliest success stories, particularly Felix the Cat, literally the first mainstream animated mascot, with films appearing as early as 1919.
Felix’s early animations, which didn’t have speaking parts, feel today like comic strips as written for the silver screen; the space was evolving so quickly that these feel primitive even compared to what was being made a decade later. Competing animators quickly adapted to what had already seen success, leading to a lot of animated cats in the 1920s, but also mimics of Felix’s style, the loosey-goosey rubber-hose style, which dominated the early years of animation. Desperate for success, animators in the 1920s essentially copied one another left and right.
Mickey Mouse is actually the perfect example of this. As animation historian David McGowan wrote in his 2019 book Animated Personalities: Cartoon Characters and Stardom in American Theatrical Shorts, Disney’s iconic mouse was a bit of a rush job, directly inspired by the loss of Oswald:
Disney did not own the character of Oswald and discovered that Mintz had brokered separate deals with the majority of his animators to continue producing the series without him if an agreement could not be reached. Discussions ultimately broke down, but Disney remained obliged to fulfill his existing contract before his lucrative creation and production staff were taken away from him.
During this period, he assembled a small team to work secretly on developing a film featuring a hastily conceived new character: Mickey Mouse. As Neal Gabler suggests, “Mickey was the product of desperation and calculation—the desperation born of Walt Disney’s need to [save his studio] and the calculation of what the market would accept” in terms of a new product. The character was a basic, rounded design without any “frills that would slow down [production],” using the prevalent rubber-hose method of animation. Rubber-hose characters were arguably most distinguishable from each other by the manner in which simple shapes were assembled, rather than by particularly complex or detailed visual attributes. In this regard, Mickey’s circular mouse ears, as opposed to Felix’s triangular cat ears or Oswald’s longer rabbit ears, mark perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the character’s visual profile.
Compare it to what you see in the technology space today: Product Hunt is full of products that are often small twists on things that are already popular, in an effort to improve on what’s out there and find success, even if it means borrowing most of your conventions from something else. Animation in the 1920s and 1930s, at a time a lot of external inspiration didn’t exist, was much the same way.
But while rubber-hose animation eventually gave way to the more finely-tailored styles of the 1930s and 1940s (as best seen in Looney Tunes and Fantasia), we never really lost our tendency to animate cartoons as if they were humanized animals. In fact, it grew much more sophisticated; the same studio that gave us the very exaggerated Mickey Mouse of the 1920s had produced the fairly realistic-by-comparision Bambi by the 1940s.
In The Animated Bestiary, Wells points to something innate about the nature of animation that makes animals well-suited to the animated form:
Animators constantly address this relationship between their own felt sense of the animal and the representation of the animal itself in a range of wholly personified contexts and narratives. It is the very process of making animation itself, which embraces and defines the bestial ambivalence I have suggested is at its heart because it consistently uses its specific tools to embrace the animal. Metamorphosis is used to demonstrate the physical and emotional transitions of animal life. Condensation is used to invoke the maximum of suggestion in the minimum of imagery, moving beyond the literalness of the photographic image to illustrate the flux of animality as it is intensely felt, half-recalled, consciously observed, physically empathized with, or intellectually understood by the animator. To put it simply, it is clear that the world cannot be understood if we do not listen to our own knowledge and experience of it, through all the available ways in which it can be engaged with, and further, through the ways in which it is possible to make connections and relationships.
Sure, Bugs Bunny doesn’t move like an actual rabbit, and Woody Woodpecker certainly doesn’t look like your average bird. But the exaggeration that animation allows is a fluidity well-suited for animal-like features, even if our animated rabbits and woodpeckers don’t actually look anything like the source material.
In many ways, the more recent directions of animated films in favor of increased realism is disappointing given the context of where animated film started.
The 2019 remake of The Lion King, in particular, seems like a real stretch of the basic ideals of animation, because in the process of trying to retell a story that had been adeptly handled in an animated format previously, it sort of lost the heart of what makes animation vital—a critique that I am not alone in making.
Now, I am just one guy with a newsletter and Disney is a company that prints money (or, perhaps more correctly, mines it) on high-end supercomputers. They gave up on the rubber-hose style long ago. But animation is a game of limitations and working around them, and despite being nowhere near as technically adept, solutions like limited animation, the technique that turned Hanna-Barbera into a television-toon powerhouse, feel more true to the spirit of Felix the Cat and Winsor McCay than the efforts to turn anthropomorphism into a jungle-bound 3D-rendered version of Milo and Otis.
Compare that to the work of Lisa Hanawalt, whose incredibly modern take on anthropomorphism in Bojack Horseman and Tuca and Bertie has perhaps made her one of the most exciting animators around. By leaning on exaggeration, Bojack in particular got something more human from its storytelling in the end, despite all the hybrid creatures. If you ask me, Hanawalt’s work is going to lead us to a much more interesting storytelling place than a hyperrealistic take on Bambi (which is coming).
The thing that makes anthropomorphism work in an animated context is the exaggeration, and that exaggeration should not be lost just because we’re working with significantly better tools.
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