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MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

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An Exchange with John K.

In early August 2004, John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren and Stimpy and proprietor of the animated cable show known most recently Ren & Stimpy: Adult Party Cartoon, invited me to watch two new half-hour shows in the series, Naked Beach Frenzy and Stimpy's Pregnant, and let him know what I thought of them. (You can watch clips from both shows at this Web site.) My response led to an ongoing exchange about John's cartoons, and about animation in general, that we agreed I could share with visitors to my Web site. The exchange ended when John declined to respond to my posting of September 23, 2004.

MB: I watched both shows the other night, and I was surprised by my reaction to Naked Beach Frenzy—I kept thinking of those Hanna-Barbera MGM cartoons with Tom and Jerry on the beach. The show felt cold to me somehow, and that's not a characteristic I associate with your work.

Stimpy's Pregnant was a lot more interesting. As always, I was impressed by your fearlessness (although, if you were really fearless, you would have had Ren be the one who was pregnant—talk about a difficult pregnancy!). Like Clampett, you're not afraid to take distortion way past conventional limits, for expressive purposes, and as a result your characters always have much more presence on the screen than most cartoon characters. But the show felt like a shaggy-dog story to me. Soon after it started, I started praying, please don't let this be leading up to another poop gag, and, of course, my hopes were dashed when Stimpy's pregnancy turned out to be constipation.

What really bothers me about your recent stuff is not lapses of taste, but its vehemence. I would have a lot less trouble with the gross gags if I thought at least some of them were tongue-in-cheek. Instead, you always seem to be pounding the table and yelling at the top of your voice.When you're doing shit 'n snot gags, I hear you shouting, this is what animation is all about! But you're not just advocating expressive distortion in the Clampett vein, which is a vital element of the art, or even saying that Clampett-style animation is the only valid kind—intentionally or not, you're saying that the only valid use of Clampett-style expressive distortion is in the service of aggressively offensive material. I think that's a weird idea.

JK: Are you sure that you're not finding the poo and booger jokes just so distasteful to yourself that you're not exaggerating them in your own mind? The thing that I like most about Stimpy's Pregnant is the acting. I don't think you can find anything ever done anywhere that can come close to the subtlety of expression—not the exaggeration—but the specific expressions that they make and in context of the scenes in the story.

And what about all the surprise gags that aren't gross at all? The cuteness of the baby—people smoking in its face in a hospital—braving wild Indians to get a cold beer for your mate, etc. There are a ton of ideas in that film—Naked Beach Frenzy too.

Maybe you should just hide your eyes during the few gross scenes and look a bit deeper. I agree that we've overused poo this season, but I know I'm not saying what you think I'm saying. The gross stuff is just throwaway silliness to me. As I'm sure slapstick was in the 1940s.

Sometimes I'll make a cartoon just for pure fun and put things in it that no one else will—like Naked Beach Frenzy, which is extremely popular everywhere I show it, but not meant to be deep at all.

I think you have made up in your mind what the perfect cartoon for you is and you are looking for only those elements in everything you watch and when a cartoon doesn't give you that (which 99.9999 percent of them won't) you can't see all the other good things that are happening that people of wider tastes can appreciate.

I have a curious wonder about something: why do many critics—especialy you judge comic books a lot less harshly than animated cartoons? Like I've read long, long treatises on Carl Barks comics that are nowhere even remotely as inventive as Clampett, Jones or Avery cartoons—nor mine. In one scene of a Clampett cartoon you can see more original and amazing drawings than in fifty comic books by anybody. And the stories are just simple—pretty boring—kids' stories. I mean, I like comics and I collect them, but the best comics don't hold a candle to the best animated cartoons.

Well there's my critique of a critique.

MB: Acting, yes, that's the essential thing, and that's what I'm talking about when I speak of "expressive distortion" (which is not at all the same as exaggeration). Cartoon acting of that kind was born in Disney's early features, particularly in the animation of Bill Tytla, and was enriched and expanded by Clampett and Jones, among others. (I write about cartoon acting at great length in Hollywood Cartoons, that book you hate.) The acting in R&S is what I have liked so much, and I resent anything that gets in the way of that acting, particularly gross business that adds absolutely nothing to the films. (Do you think Clampett was a wuss because he didn't sneak any piss or snot gags into his cartoons? Do you think his cartoons would be better if he had?)

"I think you have made up in your mind what the perfect cartoon for you is and you are looking for only those elements in everything you watch...." It's terribly ironic that you should say that, because your own tastes are so limited. Just as your love for Clampett is unmistakable, so is your disdain for Disney and impatience with Jones—even though Clampett's cartoons are part of a continuum of which the best Disney and Jones (and even Hubley) cartoons are also a part, a continuum that embraces very different but closely related and equally valid styles of cartoon acting, each style with its own special strengths. It's one of animation's curses that so many people insist that there is only one way to make a cartoon—the Disney-feature way, the Clampett way, the UPA way, or whatever—when in fact the medium's resources are so large.

As for the "inventiveness" of Barks's stories, that's a very narrow test. What I value about Barks's stories is not their "inventiveness," however measured—technical razzle-dazzle, daring distortions, whatever—but the psychological and emotional complexity of his characters, and the power of his narratives. Those are exactly the areas in which I find your recent work so frustratingly deficient, and perhaps that's why you're blind to those virtues in others.

JK: Carl Barks "complex"?!!!!! Holy Jesus!

If you like emotionally complex character motivations then you need to erase the "offensive" scenes in my cartoons from your mind and just watch the acting scenes. I agree with you that having only one influence in cartooning style is ridiculous. That's what most cartoonists do, no doubt. To accuse me of all people of that is obscenely ridiculous! Seventy-five percent of the influences in the acting in my cartoons comes from old live-action movies, TV, and people I know and not cartoons. Stop staring at the poo!

I'm not bragging, but Bill Tytla can't hold a candle to the acting in any of my cartoons—not even in my Mighty Mouse cartoons (or Clampett's or even Jones's). Disney's worst trait is his bland and stagey "acting." It is completely generic—nothing subtle or specific in the least. I'm dumbfounded that you could even make such a statement.

"Acting" is what Robert Ryan, Kirk Douglas, Jackie Gleason, Carroll O'Connor, Joan Crawford, Peter Lorre, and their ilk do. It's not what Grumpy or Stromboli do. That stuff is ridiculously generic and simple. Solidly drawn—but that's a different thing. Bugs Bunny's acting at the beginning of Falling Hare—now that's subtle, human, and also solidly drawn—by one of the best animators of all time—Bob McKimson.

Disney's acting is never remotely human. Disney animators use the most broad symbols of emotions, the symbol of happy, the symbol of sad, but never ever the specific sadness of a certain one-of-a-kind charcter in a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And this is something that you can't argue. I can, because I draw this stuff all the time. I study the cartoons you love—I've learned to draw all the stock expressions you are citing but I also study tons of live action and real people that I know and I incorporate all that into my cartoons.

That's fact and demonstrable. Ask my poor browbeaten artists that know my oppressive rule that they are never allowed to draw the same expression or pose twice. And they are not allowed to use stock animation expressions—especially Disney's.

The Disney animators were always afraid or unable to ever do anything specific. They decided on the "approved" acting poses, expressions, moves, and timings in the 1930s and once every five years or so added one more new cliché that in turn was copied again for decades without thought, warmth, or question or observation of real humans. Disney was always the king of generic. To him, quality meant "hard-to-do"—more characters on screen, fancy camera moves, shadows, and creatures that never stop moving.

I could lecture you for days on subtleties in acting and demonstrate it with my pencil and my body. That's the one thing I will brag that I do better than any animator in history. Even Clampett, who gave me the idea to do human acting in cartoons. He does everything else better than me and better than everyone else. Had he kept going he probably would have been unbeatable in that arena also.

MB [August 22, 2004]: You condemn all Disney animation in terms that could quite properly be used to condemn the worst of it. Much Disney animation of recent years (and just about all the animation derived from it, like the animation in Bluth's and DreamWorks' wretched hand-drawn features) is indeed "generic and simple"—mechanical stuff, without any real feeling behind it. But in the thirties, especially, the Disney animators were preoccupied—as you are—with developing an acting style rooted in the observation of real life, but not in the imitation of it. There's abundant evidence for that, not just in the transcripts from Don Graham's action analysis classes but also in countless other Disney studio documents and in Disney veterans' interviews with me and other researchers. The acting style that resulted differs from yours, of course, just as it differs from Clampett's—Tytla and the other great Disney animators cultivated a fluidity in their animation that had the effect of subduing expressive distortions, rather than emphasizing them. That was a reasonable choice for the animation of features, particularly of fairy-tale subjects like Snow White. But if you look at Tytla's animation of Grumpy frame by frame, you'll find a flexibility and freedom that directly anticipates Rod Scribner's great work for Clampett.

I think that Tytla and Scribner were comparable, too, in the way that they used their animation to bring their characters to very specific life. The challenge for stage and film actors is always to convey through face and body what's going on inside a character's head. Here's where character animators have an advantage over their real-world counterparts, because a well-designed cartoon character's capacity for exact expression—through distortion that reflects its mental state—is actually much greater than that of a human actor. I see acting of that kind in the best animation in the early Disney features, as well as in Scribner's animation for Clampett. I put it this way when I was writing about Tytla's animation in Hollywood Cartoons: "Whatever passed through Grumpy's mind, it seemed, was simultaneously visible in his face and body, through acting of a kind that was possible only with a cartoon character." Likewise with Scribner's animation of Prince Chawmin in Coal Black: "Scribner's animation is not simply wild--it registers an enormous variety of mental states as they flare through the Prince's brain, everything from extreme overconfidence to frenzied determination to the bleakest despair. The animation is both flamboyant and precise, revealing a tumultuous inner life."

Certainly, the "stock expressions" in today's features can be traced back to originals in the early Disney films, but it's unfair to blame Walt and his animators for the sins of their incompetent imitators, just as it would be foolish to blame Clampett and Scribner for the generically "wild" and "crazy" new series that clog Cartoon Network's schedule.

You're obviously aware of the advantage that character animation enjoys, as witness your "oppressive rule" that your artists "are never allowed to draw the same expression or pose twice." Such a rule makes sense only in animation, where a much finer gradation of expression is possible than in live action. But your "oppressive rule" strikes me as an appallingly crude means of keeping your artists focused on the characters, and on bringing them to life in very specific ways. The folks who animate Mr. Horse must have a hell of a time with that rule. I also have trouble reconciling your "oppressive rule" with your enthusiasm for actors—Kirk Douglas! Jackie Gleason! Joan Crawford! Carroll O'Connor!—whose expressive repertoire is in some cases effective but also limited, to say the least. (So why wasn't Buddy Hackett on the list? What about Mike Mazurki? I'll give you Robert Ryan and Peter Lorre, though.)

Stop staring at the poo? Well, I'd like to; but you put the poo there to be stared at, didn't you? If not, why is it there? If it's there because defecation and urination are part of life, why do you give defecation and urination (and snot, and so on) so much more prominence in your shows than they have in most people's lives? Why is an animated Ralph Bakshi's time on the pot the centerpiece of one of your recent episodes? Believe it or not, most of us don't think much about taking a dump until the urge strikes, and then we like to get in and out of the bathroom as quickly as possible. Maybe things are different at Spumco.

Which reminds me—you still haven't responded to my question about whether Clampett's cartoons would have been improved if he had snuck some piss and snot gags into them.

I do agree with you that Bob McKimson's animation at the beginning of Falling Hare is wonderful—but like all of McKimson's best animation, I don't think it would exist without (1) Disney's example and (2) Clampett's direction. McKimson's animation breaks off mid-scene, as Bugs holds up before his hammer will strike the bomb, and Rod Scribner takes over just in time for Bugs to go into near-hysterics as he realizes what almost happened. I suspect McKimson's preceding animation, all subtlety and nuance, wouldn't look nearly as good if Clampett hadn't had Scribner pick up where he did.

JK [August 29, 2004]: You condemn all Disney animation in terms that could quite properly be used to condemn the worst of it.

Actually no. What they are actually good at I like. I like their dramatic stuff—the wicked witch in Snow White, the Queen in Sleeping Beauty. I like some of the color styling in some of the features. I like the epic grandeur of their best features. Their staging, their special effects—basically I like their technical achievements.

What (Walt) Disney was always terrible at was acting. The best of it has always has been generic, stagy, and inhuman.

But in the thirties, especially, the Disney animators were preoccupied--as you are--with developing an acting style rooted in the observation of real life,but not in the imitation of it. There's abundant evidence for that, not just in the transcripts from Don Graham's action analysis classes but also in countless other Disney studio documents and in Disney veterans' interviews with me and other researchers.

There may be evidence in the documents that they talked about realistic acting, but there is no evidence in the films.

Disney's history is filled with wasted preproduction studies, discussions, and experiments that never influenced the way they made films. To this day, all feature animation studios pretend that they want to be influenced by other art styles, certain actors, new ideas, and then they turn around and make another feature with all the same ideas, expressions, poses and story flaws as Snow White.

A great "document" of this is the film The Reluctant Dragon. There are live-action scenes of the Disney artists drawing from life. We see them drawing elephants. They spend some time explaining to us that it's not enough to simply draw a realistic version of the animals they are studying. "When you animate, you need to 'caricature' life, not reproduce it exactly"—or words to that effect. Then they show us how to caricature. To the Disney artists, "caricature" is not what the word literally means, to them it means "draw it in the Disney style. Draw it cute." So they show us a drawing of a basically realistic elephant with a cute Disney-style eye, with eyelashes and highlights. This is the furthest thing from caricature. When you caricature, you should try to ignore all your preconceived notions of what things should look like. You are supposed to be learning something new. Something that exists uniquely in the model that you have not drawn a million times before. You should be exaggerating what is actually there in front of you. You should not impose your own notions of what things should look like upon the model. Disney imposes their formulas and notions about what life should look like and be upon everything they do. Real life influences them not at all.

My point is, Disney artists kind of know what real artists are supposed to do, because they have read about real artists in books. Disney was a very insecure artist and wanted to be thought of as a "real" artist, so he mimicked the things he thought real artists did—like study from life. However, his own extremely bland and archaic conservative nature wouldn't actually allow anyone in his studio to be a real artist, so they all went through the motions of learning from life, but in reality filtering what they did through Walt's tasteless kitschy cornball eyes.

In all the self-written Disney history books, they make a lot of fuss about how great their acting was, and how it was superior to the simple acting in everyone else's cartoons. Frank and Ollie's favorite example is how in the early cartoons that grew out of comic strips, the artists used cheap graphic effects to indicate the characters' emotions. For example: wiggly lines coming out of a character's head to show that he was mad, or afraid. They brag that Walt soon eliminated this kind of graphic cartoonish symbol. That would be a fine thing to brag about if they replaced it with something. They didn't. As I said in my last email, the expressions and poses Disney characters use to convey their emotions are of the simplest, most symbolic type. In thirty years of Disney animation they never got past generic acting. One character makes the same expressions as the rest of them. There is a "Disney smile," a "Disney frown," a "Disney goofy expression," there is even a stock "Disney smitten by love" expression. Whenever anyone in a Disney cartoon says anything in the negative, they always do it while shaking their head side to side and coming towards camera.

The formulaic Disney acting drives me crazy. If someone acted in front of you like a Disney character, you would turn beet red from embarrassment. A tool I find very useful in helping me break from drawing formulaic poses and expressions is the dialogue track. Most (good) actors have subtleties of inflection and timing and delivery that are unique to them. These inflections dictate to me that I cannot just draw a generic mad expression—I have to draw one that matches the way this particular actor said the angry words in this specific instance.

This concept of uniqueness, of specific variations of general emotions, is completely foreign to Disney. And to most other cartoon studios past and present. When I watch a classic Disney cartoon I always feel like I am watching a cartoon character move around on the screen but listening to someone else's voice in the other room. The two aren't related.

The Warner Bros. cartoons in general have much better and more human acting—particularly Bob Clampett's cartoons. The drawings in his cartoons are customized to the voice tracks. The Great Piggy Bank Robbery has some fantastic custom tailored acting scenes. The scene where Daffy is reading his Dick Tracy comic is full of never-before-seen expressions and poses that are funny, beautifully drawn, and fit Mel Blanc's voice track perfectly. The close-up scenes when Daffy realizes the piggy banks have been stolen are mind-blowing in their skill and humor and inventiveness. Rod Scribner makes up a new shape for Daffy's beak, eyes, and mouth in practically every frame of that scene. There is no formula at all. He is completely listening to every inflection in Mel's voice—every single phoneme gets its own unique drawing to go with it. I have freeze-framed that scene for all my artists and they always are totally amazed.

But if you look at Tytla's animation of Grumpy frame by frame, you'll find a flexibility and freedom that directly anticipates Rod Scribner's great work for Clampett.

I have looked at it many times. I use that animation in my drawing classes. I use it when I am teaching construction. The drawings are very solid. The movement has power and weight. The acting is nothing. He has a few stock moves—folding his arms, huffing and blustering and he does them the same way over and over again. His expressions are not unique in the least. It looks like Walt probably acted out Grumpy in his stagy ignorant backwoods way and Tytla just copied him.

Disney acting looks like its biggest influence is early silent film. The poses are drawn as if they have to read from fifty yards away. It's as if he didn't realize that close-ups had been invented. But again, most other cartoon studios were almost as bad at acting as Disney.

It's fine that Bill Tytla's blustering gestures are enough to amuse you. They aren't enough for me. I need something considerably more creative, unique, specific, entertaining, and magic than that. Clampett gives me that. Sometimes Jones does. Great live actors do—Carroll O'Connor, Jackie Gleason, Robert Ryan, Moe Howard, and their lot do it for me.

For me to be entertained, I have to be astounded by the skill and/or the creativity of something. You know, you gain a lot of insight into your theories of art when you actually practice the art yourself and try to do the things you have theories about. You find out what is easy and what is not easy. Disney acting is formula; it's easy to reproduce, as is evidenced by the repetition by hundreds of animators of a few simple expressions and moves throughout Disney's almost seventy-year history. (Please don't bring up the "yeah, but someone had to invent it in the first place" theory. There is nothing there that could be called an invention.)

The emotion in Disney films comes from the direction—the staging, lighting, timing, and music—not from the drawings or the acting. Every other studio was at least as good at acting as Disney and few achieved the dramatic effects that Disney got in his best films.

You're obviously aware of the advantage that character animation enjoys, as witness your "oppressive rule" that your artists "are never allowed to draw the same expression or pose twice." Such a rule makes sense only in animation, where a much finer gradation of expression is possible than in live action.

Nope. Live humans have much finer "gradation of expression." Humans have more complex facial structure and musculature than cartoons. Humans don't have to think up their expressions and then figure out how to draw them before they make them. They make expressions in real time using a lot of involuntary impulses. I have freeze-framed all my favorite actors' performances and learned this. One of our drawing exercises when we are studying acting is this: I make everyone learn how to construct Elmer Fudd—a very basic and generic cartoon character design. Then we freeze-frame Kirk Douglas and I ask the artists to draw Kirk's amazingly complex expressions on Elmer's face. This is an extremely difficult task and it is the challenge that Spumco artists are faced with every day, as they try to wrap complex and subtle human expressions around Ren and Stimpy's (or Mr. Horse's) structures.

This is something you won't ever be able to comprehend until you actually try it. You'll have to spend a decade or two learning to draw first, before you advance to this next stage.

I also have trouble reconciling your "oppressive rule" with your enthusiasm for actors—Kirk Douglas! Jackie Gleason! Joan Crawford! Carroll O'Connor!—whose expressive repertoire is in some cases effective but also limited, to say the least.

You have no way of judging that. You have to be an artist, actor, comedian, and performer to be able to truly understand how specific, subtle, complex and skilled these actors are. Have you ever seen Detective Story? Kirk Douglas can act with every individual piece of his anatomy. He is the most complex actor I have ever seen in classic movies. Jackie Gleason takes that place in comedy. Robert Ryan is much more limited than Kirk Douglas, but his smaller repertoire still consists of some of the most original gestures and expressions I've ever seen.

"Stop staring at the poo?" Well, I'd like to; but you put the poo there to be stared at, didn't you? If not, why is it there? If it's there because defecation and urination are part of life, why do you give defecation and urination (and snot, and so on) so much more prominence in your shows than they have in most people's lives?

I don't. In my last email I pointed out that all you can see is the poo and snot. You're the one who's obsessed with poo and things you find tasteless. There are so many other original and complex things going on in the cartoons that it's amazing that someone who prides himself on being observant can miss them.

Why is an animated Ralph Bakshi's time on the pot the centerpiece of one of your recent episodes?

Obviously you haven't spent a lot of time with Ralph Bakshi. This cartoon is not about poo. It's about being pulled into the world of a fellow as compelling, startling, sentimental, and dangerous as Ralph Bakshi. Anyone who has ever spent any time close to Ralph will admit he is a force of nature, larger than life and way more extreme a character than any cartoon character ever invented. I find him extremely entertaining. So do most of the cartoonists that worked on that film. Firedogs 2 is a documentary more than anything else. It's a psychological study, It is not about poo. It's about a man who is so close to nature that he doesn't realize that anyone else might not want to be so close to his nature.

I admit that the cartoon could be much better. Its worst flaw is its slow timing. The gags would have played better with tighter pacing, but the structure of the story is good and the characterizations strong.

Which reminds me—you still haven't responded to my question about whether Clampett's cartoons would have been improved if he had snuck some piss and snot gags into them.

You have plenty of complaints about Clampett's cartoons too and his "lapses in judgment and taste." His cartoons were the most human and therefore vulgar of all the Golden Age animators'. You are blind to many of his wonderful cartoons, whenever he does something that doesn't agree with your personal taste or opinion, whenever he offends you.

Hey with all this said, I'm pretty much done with poo jokes anyway. I only did two last year but that'll hold me over for a while.

Tell you what, if they order more episodes I want to try an experiment. I want to make a cartoon for you. Honest! It'd be a challenge.If you could have a cartoon that had all the ingredients that you deem necessary to make a tasteful and entertaining carton I'd like to hear about it.

I do agree with you that Bob McKimson's animation at the beginning of Falling Hare is wonderful--but like all of McKimson's best animation, I don't think it would exist without (1) Disney's example and (2) Clampett's direction.

I agree that Clampett's direction helped, but then everyone did their best work for Clampett.

But I don't agree that Disney's example had anything to do with it. McKimson had a very different animation style than Disney. Disney's animation is loose and floppy. It is based on exaggerating the principles of animation—squash and stretch, overlapping action, strong sillhouettes, and the like. It's principles run wild, not tainted with humanity. McKimson's animation was always very tight and much more natural, more rooted in reality. His expressions and poses are recognizably human and specific to McKimson, although limited in the same way that Robert Ryan's are. But even in the cartoons he directed himself there is really some great acting and animation—particularly in the early Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.

McKimson was the animator that created the fundamental style of Warner Bros. animation. Everyone else's animation at WB is a variation of his. Even Scribner and Jones. In the early Jones pictures, he combined McKimson's style with what he thought Disney was doing ad I think made it more appealing than Disney. I'm thinking of Bob Cannon's (it might be Ben Washam's) animation of Sniffles in Unbearable Bear and cartoons lke that.

McKimson's animation breaks off mid-scene, as Bugs holds up before his hammer will strike the bomb, and Rod Scribner takes over just in time for Bugs to go into near-hysterics as he realizes what almost happened.I suspect McKimson's preceding animation, all subtlety and nuance, wouldn't look nearly as good if Clampett hadn't had Scribner pick up where he did.

As I remember that scene, it was all McKimson—even the take when he says, "What am I doing?". McKimson was capable of exaggeration. He's just not as exaggerated as Scribner, but who else is?

MB [September 23, 2004]: Last month in The New Yorker, Alex Ross wrote about an avant-garde production of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal that used the projected images of “two dead rabbits, their rotting bodies intertwined. … We then saw a sped-up film of one rabbit decomposing, its body frothing as the maggots did their work.”

As Ross observed, “The trouble with this sort of provocation is that if you criticize it, even with an involuntary emetic reflex”—that is, if what you see makes you want to throw up—“you end up playing a role that the instigator has written for you. You are cast as the reactionary, the sentimentalist, the sort of person who requires a kitschy white dove [per Wagner’s stage directions], as if white doves and rotting rabbits were the only options. You are suspected of harboring Fascist tendencies.”

That pretty much sums up my feelings about what you call the “poo jokes” in your cartoons. They’re not scatological comedy of a Rabelaisian or Swiftian sort; they’re a booby trap of the kind Ross describes. When I respond to your most recent films with an “involuntary emetic reflex”—and I think that’s a natural and normal response—you say that I’m “the one who obsesses with poo and things you find tasteless. There are so many other original and complex things going on in the cartoons that it’s amazing that someone who prides himself on being observant can miss them.”

In other words, if I insist on noticing the rotting rabbits spread out across the living room, instead of swooning over the lovely embroidery on a footstool, what better proof that I’m a hopeless philistine?

I won’t write again about your “poo jokes.” I don’t think there’s anything more substantial behind those jokes than a small child’s perversity. Likewise, I’ve given up on getting you to say whether you think Bob Clampett’s Warner cartoons would be better if he had added some piss and snot gags. I know the answer, and I’m sure you do, too.

When our correspondence began, I said it was the vehemence of your recent work that bothered me most. I’ve since concluded that your vehemence is only a symptom of a larger deficiency, one that finds expression not just in “poo jokes” but also in your hostility to almost everything that came out of the Disney studio in its glory days.

Time and again, you’ve denounced or dismissed cartoons whose animation consists of something other than the most intense and extreme expressions of emotion. Animation that goes to extremes can be wonderful, of course. To quote myself, from the essay about the 2004 Annecy festival that I posted last summer:

“What makes Bob Clampett's Warner Bros. cartoons so thrilling … is that what's on the screen is … an animated equivalent of the tumultuous human psyche. What I see in the best Clampett cartoons, filled as they are with fluid movement and expressive distortions, is what the French philosopher Diderot wrote about more than 200 years ago, when he described the human mind as ‘awash with many images, many excitements, merging fears and fantasies that dissolve into one another.’"

In Clampett’s Great Piggy Bank Robbery, Daffy Duck is incredibly vivid—you’ve remarked, correctly, on the tremendous variety of poses and expressions—but he’s hysterical, or on the verge of hysteria, throughout the film. Such extrovert displays of emotion are not the only kind of animation that deserves to be taken seriously, and certainly not the only valid kind, as you sometimes seem to suggest. If it were otherwise, animation would probably be the most specialized art form in existence.

You deride “generic” animation like that in the Disney cartoons, as opposed to animation like that in Piggy Bank Robbery, but it’s increasingly clear that what you consider “generic” is what most people would call “normal”—that is, animation of characters who are not in the throes of some great passion, but who are responding to their thoughts and urges, and to one another, pretty much as real people do in their everyday lives.

There’s nothing inherently dull or confining about such animation. Most people have inner lives that are rich and surprising, and animation can reveal those inner lives with a transparency that live-action films rarely approach. It’s that transparency that I value most in Tytla’s animation. Tytla’s Grumpy is not manic-depressive, as your characters so often seem to be; he is truly grumpy, in an entirely natural way, and he is ambushed by his own emotions, again in an entirely natural way.

A very few actors in silent films—Lillian Gish comes immediately to mind—were wholly present on the screen in the way that such animated characters can be, but almost never are. Most of the actors you admire are one-dimensional by comparison. (It’s interesting that you praise Disney’s handling of the old hag in Snow White, because she was a character he thought should echo Lionel Barrymore, a scenery-chewing actor of the old school. In other words, he consciously chose to make that character more like the actors you cherish, and thus distinct from the relatively normal Dwarfs.)

My opinion of Kirk Douglas as an actor aside, I don’t see the point in asking artists to reproduce Douglas’s “amazingly complex expressions” on some version of Elmer Fudd’s face. I’m baffled by your statement that “Humans have more complex facial structure and musculature than cartoons.” Cartoon characters don’t have a “facial structure” or “musculature” comparable to that of real people. They have a design that can facilitate or impede fine variations in expression, in both face and body. A character’s design may have little or nothing to do with how real people—like Kirk Douglas—are put together. (Are you sure that your version of Elmer Fudd is the optimum design of that character? Why are your students restricted to Elmer’s face, when a character’s body can be more precisely expressive than the face alone?)

When you say that “Rod Scribner makes up a new shape for Daffy’s beak, eyes, and mouth in practically every frame” of a scene in The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, do those shapes have anything to do with the “facial structure” or “musculature” of a real duck, or a real person? Do they have everything to do instead with the emotions that those new shapes—highly abstract shapes, compared with any living creature’s anatomy—are intended to convey, not just in isolation but when glimpsed amid hundreds of other drawings at twenty-four frames a second? I think the answers are obvious. Animation is not about simply exaggerating what real human faces and bodies do. It’s about transforming what they do into a powerful new visual language.

With your contempt for Disney in mind, I was dumbfounded by your praise for the early Hanna-Barbera cartoons in your interview with Martin Goodman for Animation World Network: “They’re very conservative, yet very solid in character development and design. If somebody would let me, I would just keep making Hanna-Barbera cartoons forever. There’s something about the first three years of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons that feel [sic] really good.” I can’t imagine how you reconcile your complaints about the Disney cartoons—the disconnected voices, the “generic” animation, and so on—with your praise for some of the most crudely wooden and repetitive cartoons ever made.

Actually, I can imagine how you do it.

Like many other people, I’ve grown accustomed to thinking of your Ren & Stimpy cartoons as Clampett-flavored theatrical cartoons that have been squashed inside TV budgets. You've relied on “acting” through outlandish drawings, rather than through comic movement of the kind that made Clampett’s cartoons unique, and what you've done has seemed like an inevitable limitation, given TV budgets. I’ve come to doubt, though, that your budgets are most to blame. What your cartoons really are, I’m afraid, is true TV cartoons—that is, cartoons as deliberately mechanical as The Flintstones—but with a Clampett-like veneer. As a kid, you loved the early H-B cartoons; in your early twenties, you discovered Clampett's Warner cartoons. Now you've created a peculiar amalgam of the two, but with Hanna-Barbera as the dominating influence.

Even Stimpy’s Pregnant is a conventional TV cartoon at its heart. The business with Ren as the chauvinistic, thoughtless father is pure sitcom, and when your characters pause between fits, they lapse into expressions as blank and “generic” as anything in Huckleberry Hound. You give your characters too much dialogue, using voices as a crutch, just as Hanna-Barbera and other TV cartoon makers have always done.

Your comments about Mel Blanc’s voice for Piggy Bank Robbery are revealing in this regard. You say that Rod Scribner in his animation “is completely listening to every inflection in Mel’s voice—every single phoneme gets its own unique drawing to go with it.” You don’t acknowledge the possibility—actually, the likelihood—that Blanc created those inflections in response to Clampett’s direction, and that Clampett wanted those inflections because he had already envisioned the kind of animation he wanted from Scribner. That kind of subtle interplay among a director and his artists is what makes all the great cartoons so good, and I see scant evidence of it in your recent films.

All of this is not to say that your best cartoons, some entries in the original R&S series especially, aren’t important, and often tremendously enjoyable. I still think that they open up all kinds of exciting possibilities. But I’m increasingly skeptical about whether you will ever realize any of those possibilities yourself.

[Posted August 21, 2004; updated August 22 and 29, and September 23, 2004]

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